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‘Saildrones’ could revolutionize ocean weather data collection, improve forecasts

The National Weather Service relies on a network of buoys to collect real-time data about ocean conditions. But they’re prone to malfunction and expensive to maintain.

KNKX weather expert Cliff Mass is working with a company that is offering a potential alternative. Oakland-basedSaildronehas a fleet of autonomous sailboats that are loaded with high-tech equipment and can be deployed to collect highly accurate weather and upper-ocean observations.

Mass’ research project is placing six of them 300-400 miles offshore of the West Coast this winter, to test their capability. It’s called the Saildrone Pacific Sentinel Experiment, and a website already is showing some of the project’s results in real time.

Mass says his hope is that they will eventually not only replace the often-failing buoys that NOAA currently operates, but add more capabilities.

“You start with very high-quality observations,” Mass said. And the flexibility of being able to deploy them where they’re needed adds a whole new level of opportunity.

“They have satellite communications, so you have constant communication, you can tell it to go to a certain place and get observations every single minute," he said. "They even have cams on them so you can see what the clouds and the wave surface looks like offshore. It’s just amazing."     

Mass says the first step is testing the six saildrones they’re deploying this winter. If the data they collect can help improve NOAA’s forecasting on the West Coast, he’s confident the project will expand.

“To try to replace the (NOAA) buoys or try other locations, to see whether we can really improve forecasts over the whole planet, by positioning these boats where we need them,” Mass said.   

Weather with Cliff Mass airs at 9:02 a.m. Friday, right after BirdNote, and twice on Friday afternoons during All Things Considered. The feature is hosted by KNKX environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp. Cliff Mass is a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, a renowned Seattle weather prognosticator, anda popular weather blogger. You can also subscribe to podcasts of Weather with Cliff Mass shows, viaiTunes or Google Play.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to