Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Doing field work from the office desk

In the good old days, scientist had to climb mountains, traverse jungles and carry out hazardous ocean voyages in order to collect new data and gain new insight. These days you can sometimes do the field work from your office desk thanks to the amazing technology based on GPS positioning and two-way iridium satellite communication. Biologists can monitor wildlife using a webcam or track larger animals (such as polar bears and wolves) using GPS necklaces. 

Flight map of balloon campaign - click here for larger image.
Earlier this year I participated in a balloon campaign in Antarctica with colleagues from the U.S. and Finland (and without leaving home) using pretty much the same communication technology as is used in our SailBuoy (see the flight map). And now, we are gathering valuable data from the De Soto Canyon region while sipping coffee in front of our computer screens. Of course, this campaign would not be possible without all the effort and hard work of Nico Wienders, et al. at FSU and the crew on the RV Apalachee in getting our SailBuoy deployed on 15 March. But once the SailBuoy was on its mission, the field work has been rather comfortable. Fortunately, we sometimes still have to venture out into the elements and get our fingers cold and wet to collect data which can only be collected in situ. I have certainly had my share of frost bite. 

But I am very fascinated by the opportunities this new technology gives us. In theory, the SailBuoy can be equipped with a solar panel and a large battery and go for very long missions to remote and even dangerous regions with no human risk involved. The main challenge would be fouling on the sensors. The cost is extremely low compared to sending out a research vessel. A small Unmanned Seagoing Vehicle (USV), like the SailBuoy, will pose no danger to commercial shipping and yachts. Unfortunately, regulations are much more strict when it comes to flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) because of potentially less peaceful applications. But we can still dream that one day the ocean and atmosphere can be monitored by a network of small devices providing real-time data to correct and improve our forecasts. 

Click here to see the SailBuoy's current location

Temperature along the SailBuoy track (deg C)
Salinity along the SailBuoy track (PSU)
Oxygen along the SailBuoy track (μM)
Back to our ongoing campaign with the Deep-C SailBuoy... we have decided to stay in the DeSoto region in the coming weeks to collect more data in the upwelling region. We assessed that it would be too risky to venture west towards the Mississippi plume because of the shipping traffic and oil platform density in that region. We would also have spent many valuable days in the transit. So she is now heading for the NOAA Pensacola buoy and will collect some time series in the vicinity of that meteorological buoy. Finally, we still have to settle on the pick-up location which will take place toward the end of May, perhaps close to the Pensacola Bay. 

 Posted by:

Dr. Lars Hole
Norwegian Meteorological
Institute (Met.no)


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