FlightWave Joins Schmidt Ocean Institute on Drone-Centric Study of Pacific Marine Life

Schmidt Ocean Institute's ocean expedition in June, using robotic submarines, and a FlightWave drone, suggests autonomous vehicles can work together.

FlightWave Aerospace

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI) in 2009 to further oceanographic research and develop the technology to effectively do so. According to the Santa Monica Daily Press, Santa Monica-based drone company FlightWave recently joined this effort when it provided its autonomous drone, The Edge, to an SOI expedition in the Pacific Ocean. The mission, though fairly intricate, was simple: to amass pivotal data regarding the ocean’s temperature fluctuations and the correlated effect on the marine life within. 

The Edge, unmanned and fitted with a thermometer, cameras, and an invaluable sensor that can identify and asses a variety of gases and environmental factors, has collected so much data that FlightWave co-founder and CTO Trent Lukaczyk said scientists are still wading through it all a month later. Together with the three robotic submarines and the SOI’s Falkor research vessel, the expedition proved autonomous vehicles can operate simultaneously in the same vicinity and collectively, autonomously, produce indispensable results.

“It means that we can collect a lot more data efficiently,” said Lukaczyk. “It’s one step closer to us creating a persistent presence in the ocean, monitoring the ocean for longer in larger and larger areas. In a year we’ll likely still be finding things that are new in the data, there’s just so much.”

The Edge was deployed 24 times in June, and totaled 10 hours of flight time above the Pacific. The SOI expedition as a whole saw the three submarine drones and The Edge cover over 1,000 nautical miles of ocean, with around 500 hours of total operations time. All of this was centered on the North Pacific Subtropical front, where northern freshwater meets southern saltwater, in order to better understand ocean acidification, pollution, destruction of habitat, and fishing impact on a large scale. This specific boundary is located about 1,000 nautical miles from the Southern California coast. 

“I think it is essential for humankind to understand the big picture because, in the end, we are talking about the life-support system for the Earth,” said lead scientist Dr. Joao Borges de Sousa. “The oceans are an important component of that life-support system and they are not as tremendously huge as people tend to assume. In fact, if all the oceans’ water were put into a bubble, most of us would be stunned to see how impressively small it looks when compared to the Earth’s size. And, yet, science still lacks the technology and tools to study the oceans’ overall health and functioning.”

The Edge’s gas-sensor module was developed by NASA to detect Dimethylsulfide (DMS), which is naturally emitted by phytoplankton on the verge of death. When DMS is released, clouds appear on the surface above, and the ocean’s temperature near this gas emission slightly decreases. Lukaczyk said only two of these DMS-detecting sensors exists, and that both were used in SOI’s expedition. If his assessment regarding availability is correct, it’s not only unfortunate, but a strong indicator that a much bigger effort to utilize this tech should be made as soon as possible.

“It’s really the canary in the coal mine,” said Lukaczyk. “You think of a drone as a camera these days, but gas sensors, are the future.” 

We’ve previously reported on a wide variety of drone technologies being utilized for oceanographic and environmental research, from whale-disentangling unmanned aerial vehicles to the aerial discovery of a supercolony of penguins. Naturally, with affordable camera-drones that are easily piloted and provide users with an invaluable vantage point, environmentalists and scientists in the field are going to gravitate toward them. Fortunately, drone companies with a humanitarian edge like FlightWave are gravitating toward equally charitable institutes like the SOI, so that we can all learn more about our planet’s ailments, and try to make a difference.