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Sailing drone will traverse the lakes late-July through September

A saildrone, an orange autonomous sailing vessel, passes through an open drawbridge
The USGS worked with Saildrone, Inc., to launch an autonomous surface vehicle called a Saildrone Explorer into Lake Michigan out of Charlevoix, Michigan, on July 19, 2023. Credit: Saildrone, Inc.

CHARLEVOIX, Mich. — The U.S. Geological Survey is using an autonomous surface vehicle on lakes Michigan and Huron from late-July through September 2023 to improve fishery surveys across the lakes in cooperation with several partners in both the U.S. and Canada.

On July 19, a wind and solar-powered uncrewed surface vehicle called a Saildrone Explorer was launched on Lake Michigan out of Charlevoix, Michigan. The vehicle is equipped with several environmental sensors both under and above the water, including a fisheries echosounder that uses sound to detect fish, much like a fish-finder on a fishing boat, and is operated by Saildrone, Inc. The saildrone will operate in northern Lake Michigan and throughout Lake Huron through the end of September. An additional saildrone is in operation on Lake Erie during the same time period.

“Technologies like Saildrone are helping us to more accurately monitor fish abundances, which gives the states and tribes better information to help manage the Great Lakes fishery,” said Dr. Peter Esselman, USGS Fishery Biologist. “The great advantage of a wind-powered drone is that it can stay on the water collecting data 24 hours a day for months at a time, greatly expanding the amount of water we can monitor for fish. The drone moves slowly and is not dangerous, but we encourage boaters to maintain safe distances from the saildrone to ensure a successful mission.”

Automated Underwater Vehicle Tethys in Lake Michigan
Long-range autonomous underwater vehicle 'Tethys' upon retrieval after a previous mission on Lake Michigan. Photo Credit: Peter Esselman, USGS.

In addition to the saildrone, a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRAUV) will be deployed out of various harbors along Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline, from Frankfort down to Benton Harbor, Michigan throughout the month of August. The LRAUV is operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and will travel at 25 to 50 meters water depth, also mapping fish distributions.

Fisheries echosounder (or acoustic) surveys on lakes Michigan and Huron are conducted using diesel-powered conventional research vessels that are relatively loud and, as a result, may impact data collected near the water surface where fish are scared away from the noise. The saildrone and the LRAUV provide advantages for fishery research that may address this potential bias in existing fisheries acoustic surveys. Saildrones are virtually silent in the water and unlikely to scatter fish. The LRAUV, which operates in the middle of the water column and has echosounders looking up and down, allowing it to detect fishes near the bottom and surface that traditional acoustic research vessels or the saildrone cannot.  Scientists will compare the data gathered using the drones and research vessels to address potential sampling biases in existing surveys.

Partners on these studies include the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

Map showing saildrone's route, beginning in the northernmost part of Lake Michigan, then circumnavigating Lake Huron
Anticipated route for Saildrone Explorer over 56 days in lakes Michigan and Huron. Green lines represent areas where acoustic data will be collected from both the saildrone and conventional research vessels simultaneously for comparisons. Pink lines represent areas where the saildrone will gather data independently. Final routes will be determined closer to the mission start date.

"These experiments using advanced technologies and autonomous vehicles are just one part of a multi-year effort by USGS and fishery management partners across the Great Lakes to improve fishery science in support of the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery," said Commissioner Jim McKane, chair of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. "This is what 21st Century science looks like, and it's happening now here in the Great Lakes thanks to strong collaborative partnerships."

“Saildrone provides cost-effective and environmentally friendly oceanographic data collection to scientists working to protect and understand Earth’s oceans and lakes. With two years of successful data collection missions in lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior, Saildrone is proud to continue to support USGS's data needs this year in lakes Michigan, Huron, and Erie,” said Matt Womble, Sr. Director of Ocean Data Programs at Saildrone.

Notices regarding both autonomous vehicles have been provided to mariners via the U.S. Coast Guard. The acoustic technology used in the study is not hazardous to people or animals and will not interfere with sonar, communications equipment, or similar electronics. Boaters are asked to maintain a safe distance of 1500 feet from the saildrone.

The USGS worked with Saildrone, Inc., to launch an autonomous surface vehicle called a Saildrone Explorer into Lake Michigan out of Charlevoix, Michigan, on July 19, 2023. Video used with permission courtesy Saildrone, Inc.

Additional photos and videos of the Charlevoix launch are available by contacting Saildrone directly at Imagery can also be found from a similar mission being carried out in Lake Erie this summer and a previous mission carried out on Lake Superior in 2022.

Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Carousel image: Saildrone Explorer on Lake Michigan after launch. Credit: Saildrone, Inc.

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The USGS provides science for a changing world. Learn more at or follow us on Facebook @USGeologicalSurvey, YouTube @USGS, Instagram @USGS, or Twitter @USGS.


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