NOAA has robotic solution to Alaska Pollock survey

Federal fisheries scientists faced with having to cancel Alaska Pollock surveys in the Bering Sea because of a global pandemic will use autonomous surface vehicles to collect the data needed to support management of the nation’s largest commercial fishery.

The effort this summer supports NOAA’s broader strategy to expand the use of emerging science and technologies, including unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence to advance ocean research, said project coordinators at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC).

“We knew there was a possibility that surveys may be cancelled this year, so we worked on a contingency plan to collect some data just in case,” said Alex De Robertis, the NOAA fisheries biologist and project lead. “We were able to capitalize on our previous experience working closely with Saildrone and NOAA Research’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) to get things off the ground quickly.”

The science center itself has been doing research to test new technologies to both improve operating efficiencies and enable NOAA to respond quickly when situations like this arise, said Bob Foy, director of AFSC.

Three Saildrones, unmanned wind-powered surface vehicles, are sailing autonomously to the eastern Bering Sea from Alameda, California, with anticipated arrival in early July. There they will begin the 60-day survey over roughly the same area normally covered by standard research vessels to estimate Pollock abundance. Built into the Saildrones are low-power sonar instruments, known as echosounders, which can detect the presence of fish using sound. Echosounders send sound pulses into the water and measure how much of this energy echoes back from fish, helping scientists to estimate the population of fish below.

The technology was developed by AFSC working with Saildrone, PMEL and the Norwegian technology firm Kongsberg Maritime.

Throughout the survey, compressed summaries of the echosounder data and environmental conditions, and photos will be transmitted to shore via the Saildrone’s satellite modem four times an hour. With this real-time information, De Robertis and colleagues will be able to adjust the course of the Saildrones, if necessary. PMEL scientists will process oceanographic and meteorological data in real time.