British Columbia

New fleet of robotic vessels off West Coast will improve weather monitoring

A 'picket fence' line of drones that looks like small sailboats and can provide detailed weather data by the minute is being put into the ocean from Vancouver Island to Southern California to help improve forecasting on the Pacific West Coast.

Drones look like small sailboats and can provide detailed weather data by the minute

Autonomous saildrones, which measure about six metres tall, are being deployed along the Pacific coast, from Vancouver Island to Southern California, to collect weather data that is relayed by satellite to onshore operators. (Twitter/NOAA Climate)

Far off B.C.'s  South Coast, a fleet of red ships with wing-like sails is hard at work in the Pacific Ocean.

The wind-driven robotic vessels are not pleasure craft. They are autonomous devices designed to monitor the weather and are being placed along the coastline from Vancouver Island to Southern California.

The project is spearheaded by weather researchers at the University of Washington who have teamed up with Saildrone, a robotics company from Alameda, Calif., to improve weather forecasting along the west coast of North America.

The devices look like small sailboats and can send back regular detailed weather reports. According to Cliff Mass, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, Saildrone's plan is to sell the data to governments who want it.

"There's a picket fence of them off North America," said Mass. "They can stay out for months or a year and they can send back weather observations every minute that allow us to see what's happening over the ocean."

Better than buoys, say experts

Mass said the West Coast "suffers a bit of a forecast deficit" to some extent because a lot of weather data is collected from buoys he says that tend to fail the first time they are hit by a major storm.

"They either go drifting or the sensors fail. These boats are a little hardier and if they fail, you can just call them back to their home base in Oakland and fix them and send them back," he explained, adding it can be costly to send crews out to retrieve and repair the buoys.

Although missing major storms is now a rarity, site specific weather threats that could endanger shipping and coastal communities can still happen.

Compared to the east coast of Canada, which has the benefit of thousands of land-based weather stations, the Pacific has few stations, and that's a concern, says University of Victoria climatologist David Atkinson.

"Anytime we can get more weather observation data in the Pacific off of the North American West Coast is a great thing." said Atkinson, adding it would be helpful to use the drones to understand warm water blobs that frequent the region and their impact on weather.

"If we can have these devices roving around in a sense measuring where warm or cold water temperature anomalies might be occurring, that's extremely useful as well," said Atkinson.

Over the next few months, Mass and his team will monitor the drones to see if they can provide a more accurate weather picture of the West Coast.

"We can use these observations to see that things are going wrong," said Mass, "and hopefully correct the forecast."