AI helps UH oceanographers study the health of Hawaii’s ocean

If you’re out on the ocean, or you scan the horizon from shore, you may see one of them in action.
Published: Jun. 15, 2023 at 4:55 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 15, 2023 at 5:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - If you’re out on the ocean, or you scan the horizon from shore, you may see one of them in action. Three unmanned surface vehicles from Saildrone are sailing around the state.

They look a lot like sailboats.

“They’re 23 feet long. They’re painted bright orange. They have a rigid sail that looks more like an airplane wing sticking straight up,” said Chris Sabine, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The Explorer vessels are equipped with sensors and gadgets that enable Sabine and other researchers to see how the water’s delicate pH balance is altered by carbon dioxide from man-made emissions and other impacts from land.

“It’s very difficult to take a ship to sample that because we’re trying to get as up-close to the shore and the coral reefs as possible, without actually hitting them. We can actually do that more effectively using these autonomous platforms,” Sabine said.

The ocean drones are moving in patterns around the islands from two and a-half miles from shore to within a half mile of land, and they’ll cover hundreds of nautical miles.

“We will send two boats to one spot and go in the opposite direction around,” Sabine said. “They’re together in one spot and then when they meet again, we’ve finished that island. Then we move to the next.”

The saildrones have cameras that land-based crews monitor and artificial intelligence that keeps them on course and away from other vessels.

The measurements they take are relayed to scientists in real time via satellite.

“Just in the information we’ve already gotten, we’ve seen interesting patterns of, for example, ocean acidification which is the lowering of the pH of the oceans that affects the ability of the coral reefs to grow,” Sabine said.

And he has introduced another element to his research project. Ocean buoys are adding to the information the saildrones gather to provide even more detail.

“The buoys measure exactly the same thing that the sailboats measure but in one fixed location over time,” he said.

The mission will take six months to complete and it will generate a mountain of useful information that will extend beyond science.

“All of this is feeding into the resource managers that are going to determine when it’s appropriate to open or close beaches, or determine how to manage tourism in particular areas that might be impacting the reefs,” Sabine said.

The project is the most comprehensive water chemistry study ever attempted in Hawaii.

And there are other aspects to it that include inviting Hawaii high schools to use the information gathered by the saildrones as a teaching tool.