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Alaska Marine Mammal Monitoring

These drones can sail the high seas from the touch of a smartphone

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Tasmania, AUSTRALIA (Circa/Associated Press)--It's a sail boat...It's a robot...It's a saildrone?

The electric-red device is the latest technological development crafted by researchers and scientists at The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research, an independent agency of the Australian Federal Government responsible for scientific research in Australia, tasked with collecting data about the ocean's surface. That could come in handy, researchers say, when it comes to important, but difficult to track, ecological changes.

"If there's an example of a pollution event, we can send the sail drones out to those regions and monitor in a much more thorough way then we could before."
Bronte Tilbrook, research scientist at CSIRO

Specifically, the three drones are equipped with technology that can record ocean chemistry, salinity, temperature and marine life. That data is then transferred to monitors that record climate changes.

“Those insights could also address other global challenges, if you like address the moon shots like saving the Great Barrier Reef, like predicting the next El Nino event," said Dr. Larry Marshall, chief executive at CSIRO.

Besides expanding scientists' knowledge about seemingly intractable environmental events, they also say the devices could help identify future carbon capture storage hotspots. That would allow researchers to collect carbon and deposit it in sites that would prevent the chemical from otherwise being released into the atmosphere.

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A Saildrone is displayed at the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental in Mountain View, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Marshall added, "We're pretty convinced that we can capture the carbon and trap it. The sail drones have the ability to continuously monitor sites.”

Life on the high seas can be difficult and unpredictable, so the drones are equipped to be relatively autonomous. They rely on renewable energy--solar and wind--which allow them to be deployed for up to 12 months at a given time. And, they don't need any extra supplies, and researchers can control their location at their fingertips.

"We don't have a control center we have an iPhone, we have a web app that controls the drone and tells it where to go."
Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder

Two of the three drones are currently on their way to Gippsland Basin, one of Australia's most prolific hydrocarbon provinces, while the third is braving the Southern Ocean on its own.

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The drones may be traveling into uncharted territory, but researchers say they'll serve as an important litmus test for future bots.

Jenkins added, "The big breaking waves are definitely a threat to the vehicles but it's a new territory for us and we'll just have to see how they handle it and if we have problems we will redesign it to solve those problems."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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