The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) approval in principle for Saildrone uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) is a first step toward creating a new class of vessel distinctly apart from – while sharing some of the same missions – as traditional workboat classes.

“That classification essentially verifies that we’re doing the right things to be safe on the ocean,” said Brian Connon, Saildrone’s ocean mapping vice president. “If this helps gain that acceptance in the community, it shows we’re not just out there sailing around with something we threw up in a garage.”

Robotic sea vehicles started as the province of creative oceanographers and engineers, who are always up against the daunting cost of doing science at sea on ships and looking to use new digital technology. The Slocum electric glider, named for the first solo circumnavigator, Joshua Slocum, proved the concept with a 2009 trans-Atlantic crossing by a team at Rutgers University. Gliders also demonstrated how USVs can be quickly mobilized and deployed to gather data on storms and other environmental events.

The Saildrone propulsion system reaches farther back into seafaring heritage, with its efficient high-tech sails that Slocum himself might have appreciated. Since the Alameda, Calif.-based company started up in 2012, its USVs have logged more than one million nautical miles during 32,000 days at sea, said Connor.

“We’re not an R&D (research and development) now, we’re an operational platform,” said Connon. 

The ABS approvals issued in June cover the 33’ (10 meter) Saildrone Voyager design, and the 65’ (20 meter) Saildrone Surveyor, now “the world’s largest uncrewed ocean mapping vehicle” according to Saildrone. The next production Surveyor vehicles are aluminum and under construction at Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, Ala.

At the Underwater Intervention program during the International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans last week, Connon presented an overview of recent Saildrone missions. The vehicles have helped the National Marine Fisheries Service track whales in the Gulf of Maine and perform fisheries surveys for Alaska pollock. Most recently Saildrones were used in a first-ever study of bats on the California coast, providing critical information for offshore wind energy planners.

“We can be persistent, we can go a lot of places you can’t get to,” said Connon. Saildrone vehicles are built for long-endurance, over the horizon operations while carrying sensor payloads for different missions. Connon ticked off other virtues of the vehicles: compact size, “modular, repeatable, economical, quick to market.”

“The fact that we can use so many sensors is a game changer for the community,” said Connon. Along with ocean mapping, Saildrone vehicles can be configured for monitoring illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, maritime safety and law enforcement missions, seafloor cable surveys, offshore wind planning and border and harbor security.

The ABS classification will likely lend maritime regulators in other countries confidence in permitting Saildrone vehicles, said Connon. 

“For other countries, being able to step in and say, ‘Hey we have ABS and here’s how we train our pilots to operate them. Every country is different, but if you can bring in that document it helps in the regulatory side,” he said. “I’m talking to a couple of state control officers now.”

Saildrone touts its safety record. After one million miles underway, the sole incidents were attempts by Iranian naval forces in summer 2022 to seize two vehicles in the Arabian Gulf, said Connon.

“The only ‘autonomous’ thing we are is when we give a drone a waypoint and a corridor, and it will sail itself,” he said. “But we always have a pilot who’s keeping an eye on what the drone is seeing. We probably have better situational awareness than many merchants on the ocean today, because we’re letting the computer tell us when there is a problem.”

Machine learning enables the Saildrone computer to recognize potential problems from images. Some close encounters just come from curious mariners, said Connon: “A lot of times we’re trying to avoid a situation and someone just comes up to see what we look like.”

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.