NOAA Ship Rainier successfully field tests autonomous hydrographic survey launch

Autonomous survey launch.

By Lt. j.g. Airlie Picket

NOAA Ship Rainier field tested a new hydrographic survey platform this season. Last winter, one of the ship’s hydrographic survey launches was converted into a semi-autonomous vessel, allowing it to be operated remotely.  Hydrographic surveying is, by nature, dangerous. Autonomous systems have the potential to augment traditional surveying methods, improving efficiency and decreasing (or eliminating) risk to the surveyors themselves. As such, this technology is an exciting step toward fully-autonomous hydrographic survey systems.

On the outside of the vessel, not much has changed. Cameras were installed around the vessel to provide a field of view for the remote operator.  Antennas for new data radios were also added for telemetry between the launch and the ship or shore, up to six nautical miles away.

Autonomous survey launch.
Autonomous survey launch (RA-3); red circles identify newly installed radios and cameras for autonomous operation. Credit: Lt. j.g. Airlie Pickett
Interior of autonomous survey launch.
A main goal of this conversion is to maintain the ability to conduct normal survey operations with the survey launch while testing the autonomous system. The newly installed systems are as unobtrusive as possible so as not to interfere with the coxswain’s (driver) ability to operate the vessel. The red circles indicate an emergency shut off (right) and a vessel control panel (top). Credit: Lt. j.g. Airlie Pickett

The interior of the launch is not obviously changed either.  However, behind the scenes are several new modules such as an autopilot, the data radio, and additional computers capable of navigating the launch on a route planned by the remote operator.

Communication between the operator and the autonomous survey launch (ASL) occurs via radio waves, similar in frequency to Wi-Fi. Information packets with instructions for the autonomous system are sent from a ship or launch-based operator.  Video from the launch cameras, position, speed, and system status data are sent back to the operator.  In addition, the launches multibeam echo sounder and other survey systems can be operated via a remote desktop connection.

Rainier’s mast.
Four antennae on Rainier’s mast communicate with the launch. Credit: HST Amanda Finn

The ASL is controlled in a variety of different ways.   An interface on a computer is used to operate the launch manually, just as a coxswain would. Alternatively, the launch can be controlled via a handheld remote controller (very similar to popular gaming controllers). We envision that these remote-control modes will be used when navigating the launch visually near the ship or piers.  For hydrographic surveying, the launch follows an assigned line plan created by the operator from the remote laptop. While operating in the autonomous mode, the launch is continuously monitored by a trained operator.

HAST Christina Brooks.
HAST Christina Brooks practices operating the vessel via handheld remote controller. Credit: HST Amanda Finn
Manual driving interface from remote laptop with launch’s forward camera angle.
Manual driving interface from remote laptop with launch’s forward camera angle.
Screenshot of a line plan from the remote laptop.
Screenshot of a line plan from the remote laptop.

This project is a critical step in the future of hydrographic surveying.  In the near term, unmanned systems will increase survey efficiency by autonomously surveying open areas freeing our trained personnel to work in more complicated areas where direct human control is essential.  In the long term, we anticipate that  100% of our data acquisition may be performed with fully autonomous systems. That goal is years, perhaps decades, from being realized. Implementing and testing systems like this in the field can accelerate that process by identifying potential problems early on. It’s an ongoing experiment and we’re excited to be a part of it!

Saildrone launched with seafloor mapping capabilities in the Gulf of Mexico shows promise for remote Arctic mapping

Rear Adm. Shep Smith, Richard Jenkins, and Brian Connon in front of a Saildrone.

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), and Saildrone accomplished a key milestone in the research and testing of unmanned technology that can lead to enhanced seafloor mapping capabilities with the launch of the first Saildrone — a wind-driven and solar-powered unmanned surface vehicle (USV) — equipped with multibeam echo sounder technology in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA anticipates the success of this mission and technical achievement will lead to mapping projects in the Arctic.

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NOAA hosts 2019 Nautical Cartography Open House and Chart Adequacy Workshop

Sean Legeer shows a digital cartography display to visiting students.

Last week, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey held its third annual Nautical Cartography Open House welcoming over 250 attendees from the U.S. and abroad. Government agencies, industry and academic partners, and members of the public attended. The open house featured posters, presentations, tours, and exhibits centered around four themes: Bathymetric Databases, Custom Charting, Innovative Cartography, and Precision Navigation. Dr. Shachak Pe’eri, organizer of the event and chief of the Cartographic Support Branch in the Marine Chart Division, welcomed attendees in the morning and John Nyberg, chief of the Marine Chart Division, gave the keynote speech.

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NOAA completes hydrographic surveys following Hurricane Barry

Lt. j.g. Patrick Lawler and Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano remove the side scan sonar from the water.

By Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano

Seven tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean have been named Barry, with the first storm making landfall in 1983. In 2019, Hurricane Barry reached Category 1 status on July 13, becoming the first hurricane of the 2019 season. 

On July 11, Office of Coast Survey’s Gulf Coast Navigation Manager, Tim Osborn, received requests from U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and local ports for resources to confirm navigational depths in Louisiana waters. Once a navigation manager receives requests for hydrographic surveys, Coast Survey formulates logistics to complete these requests. In the case of Hurricane Barry, Coast Survey’s navigation response team (NRT)- Stennis mobilized to respond to Port Fourchon, Louisiana’s southernmost port. Port Fourchon supports significant petroleum industry traffic coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, furnishing about 18% of the U.S. oil supply

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From historic air disasters to hurricane response, NOAA uses cutting edge science to survey the seafloor

NOAA ships Rude and Whiting's search limits off Martha’s Vineyard.

By Christine Burns

Hydrographic surveying continually evolves to improve safety, efficiency, and accuracy in data collection. From using side scan sonar equipment during hydrographic survey response efforts following air disasters in the late 1990s, to recent hurricane response efforts to re-open ports to maritime commerce, our science always strives to be cutting edge.

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A dynamic river calls for dynamic collaborations

Lt. j.g. Shelley Devereaux monitors survey collection near Price Island on the Columbia River.

By Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano, Officer in Charge, Navigation Response Team-Seattle

Navigation response team (NRT)-Seattle continued hydrographic survey work on one of the West’s most relentless rivers, the Columbia. The Columbia River is the lifeblood of the regional economy, expanding far beyond the natural divide it provides between the states of Oregon and Washington.

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Coast Survey spotlight: Meet Kurt Mueller

Kurt Mueller and survey technicians

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a member of the NOAA Coast Survey team? We use the Coast Survey spotlight blog series as a way to periodically share the experiences of Coast Survey employees as they discuss their work, background, and advice.


Kurt Mueller, physical scientist

“The hydrographic data we acquire and review adds to the scientific knowledge of the seafloor and is valuable to other agencies to simulate sea level effects on coasts, identify sensitive marine habitats, and select alternative energy sites, among many other uses.”

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Register for NOAA Nav-cast webinar – S-100 for System Implementers

NOAA Nav-cast announcement for S-100 System Implementers presentation

Join us for our first NOAA Nav-cast, a quarterly webinar series that highlights the tools and trends of NOAA navigation services.

S-100 for System Implementers
Learn about the S-100 Universal Hydrographic Data Model and what navigation system developers need to know in order to implement various S-100 based product specifications. Also, gain insight into NOAA’s work in the S-100 product development space for S-111 surface currents. 

Date and time: Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at 11 a.m. (EDT)
How to register: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7354579801420345345

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Centennial anniversary of aerial surveying and mapping

By Kevin Mackenzie

A year after Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) Director Ernest Lester Jones returned from World War I, he took the Survey’s mission to the sky. From his time in war, Jones understood the advantages that airplane photography had for locating military features of the enemy. In his 1919 annual report to Commerce Secretary William C. Redfield, he noted, “The same principle employed in the military work can be used in surveying and mapping.” The following months would produce a series of tests and research in cooperation with the Air Services of the Army and Navy.

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