Saildrone’s first aluminum Surveyor autonomous vessel splashes down for Navy testing

Ocean intelligence company Saildrone has just put the first of a new generation of Surveyor autonomous vessels in the water: an aluminum version that the Navy is keen to take advantage of. But don’t worry – they aren’t putting guns on them.

Founder and CEO Richard Jenkins told TechCrunch that the demand for vessels like SailDrone’s is only growing.

“We expect the need for ocean observing to continue to grow in size, complexity, and quality. Aerial, surface, and subsurface technologies all have a role to play in ocean observations,” he said.

The 20-meter SD-3000 is similar to the previous versions of the Surveyor that are currently sailing the ocean and collecting data, but this one has an aluminum hull while the others are a fiberglass/carbon composite. The wing (or sail, but sails are fabric) is still composite, though.

“Aluminum was chosen for the hull and keel for its robustness, longevity in the ocean environment, cost, and the ability to rapidly mass produce at very large factories like Austal,” said Jenkins. “We don’t have the same scale of composite production facilities available in the US.”

Image Credits: Saildrone

Recently we have seen startup Syrenna and nonprofit Cerulean demonstrating the value of semi-stationary and satellite-based observations respectively.

“USVs provide high-resolution data, simultaneously from both above and below the sea surface. This data has much higher spatial and temporal resolution than can be gained from satellites, and the extreme range and endurance allow persistent measurements far beyond the reach of AUVs,” Jenkins explained — the sonar on board can hit 11,000 meters, which ought to be plenty. “We see Saildrone as an integral part of the ecosystem for not just collecting data, but providing the high-bandwidth satellite communications and even physical delivery for other systems.”

Improved marine intel is an enabler in climate science, international logistics, law enforcement, and of course military matters. The Navy is a particular client for this brand new vessel; Admiral Lisa Franchetti noted that uncrewed vehicles very simply allow crewed ones to go where they’re needed rather than perform tasks that can be automated, like persistent observation.

So far, no one has suggested weaponizing the Saildrone vessels, though. That’s probably a non-starter — weapons platforms need to be designed from the ground up for combat, and the Surveyors (the hint is in the name) are rather more focused on information gathering.

The Austal line is expected to be able to put out one Surveyor every six weeks to start with. SD-3000 and a few of its in-progress aluminum kin will be detailed to Navy testing of its capability of producing “surface and undersea intelligence for a range of high-priority applications, including anti-submarine warfare.”