Unmanned gliders to help DFO measure and monitor oceans

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is investing in unmanned ocean gliders to measure water quality.

The gliders can travel hundreds of kilometres on a single charge

Adam Comeau of the Ocean Tracking Network in Halifax and Rianna Burnham of the University of Victoria prepare to launch the glider into the ocean. (UVic Whale research Lab)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is investing in a new way to monitor Canada's oceans.

The federal department has announced plans to purchase up to seven unmanned gliders. The semi-autonomous vehicles will patrol the coastlines, taking water samples and measurements along the way.

The gliders will work in tandem with researchers on ships to collect data. However, the unmanned machines can be deployed more frequently and for longer periods than their human research partners.

Ocean gliders are highly efficient vehicles, able to travel hundreds of kilometres powered by a small battery. 

The battery either drives a small propeller or — more commonly — adjusts the glider's buoyancy to dive and surface. Side-mounted wings push the glider forward each time it descends or climbs.

Slow but steady

The glider's reliance on changes in buoyancy make it very slow.

The two-metre long glider can dive to a depth of 200 metres. (Rhianna Burnham)

Speeds range from 0.5 to 1.5 km/h. But a glider can cover 700 to 3,000 kilometres on a single charge, depending on the model.

They can also dive hundreds of metres beneath the surface.

Packed with sensors

Ocean gliders have been used in Canada since the early 2010s. The DFO has worked with researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Victoria to study the oceans and share data.

The gliders can measure water temperature, salinity and oxygen levels. Some models can even track sea life — everything from tiny plankton to fully-grown sharks.

After working with universities for years, DFO wants to own its own gliders.

"They will be used to enhance our normal ship based sampling that happens three times a year," said an emailed statement from a DFO representative.

Ships are deployed from various points along the coast and travel seaward, making hundreds of measurements and calculations.

Example of a DFO chart, showing zooplankton populations measured along various monitoring lines. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

DFO has issued a call for tenders for up to two gliders to be used on the west coast, and up to five to be used on the east coast.

Companies or individuals interested in supplying the gliders have until early November to submit bids. 

About the Author

Brett Ruskin


Brett Ruskin is a reporter and videojournalist covering everything from local breaking news to national issues. He's based in Halifax.