Unmanned drones are scouring Lake Superior for vital fishery data.

What’s happening: Sailors and fishing boats out on the waters of Lake Superior shouldn’t be alarmed if they come across an unmanned, bright orange 23-foot vessel cruising atop the lake. That’s because it’s likely one of two uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) launched by California-based Saildrone, Inc. as part of a 25-day mission to collect critical data on the health of this most vital ecosystem.

The mission: Launched on Wednesday, Aug. 10, the two Saildrone Explorers are equipped with sensors that collect fish distribution and density data throughout Lake Superior. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will use the data to better understand how large vessel engine noise affects fish sampling and catchability. The saildrones themselves are touted as being virtually silent and have zero operational carbon footprint. USGS scientists will also analyze Lake Superior’s rainbow smelt population, which is considered an invasive prey fish species that is already well-established in the Great Lakes ecosystem. 

Why it’s important: The Great Lakes fishing industry — including commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries — is valued at producing more than $7 billion per year and supports 75,000 jobs throughout the region. The Lake Superior mission is part of a larger multi-year mission in the Great Lakes led by the USGS with state, federal, tribal, Canadian provincial, private, and non-profit partners. This is the second year that Saildrone Explorers have collected data in the Great Lakes; Saildrone Explorers traveled from Holland, Mich., to Port Huron in 2021.

What they’re saying: “The USGS strives to continuously enhance the quality of our science by integrating cutting-edge technologies into our research,” says Peter Esselman, a USGS biologist and the project lead. “The data collected during this Lake Superior mission will help Great Lakes fishery managers make the most informed decisions possible to sustain the fishery.”

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