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 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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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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NOAA releases 2019 hydrographic survey plans

NOAA Hydrographic Survey Projects 2019 story map cover

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey is the nation’s nautical chartmaker, and maintains a suite of more than a thousand nautical charts. Coast Survey is responsible for charting U.S. waters and Great Lakes covering 3.4 million square nautical miles (SNM) of water and 95,000 miles of coastline.

NOAA’s hydrographic survey ships along with hydrographic contractor vessels, recently kicked off the 2019 hydrographic survey season. These surveys not only update the suite of nautical charts, but also help to maintain the safety of maritime commerce, recreational boaters, natural ecosystems, and much more. Operations are scheduled for maritime priority areas around the country and are outlined in Coast Survey’s “living” story map. Here is a list of where they are headed this year:

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NOAA Improves Etolin Strait Data with New NOAA ENC® Layout

Etolin Strait survey area and reschemed grid

NOAA recently released 13 new large-scale electronic navigational charts (NOAA ENC®) of Etolin Strait, Alaska. These charts provide a nearly twenty-fold increase in scale over the previous ENC coverage. New Etolin Strait hydrographic surveys and the resulting ENCs served as a pilot project for the overall rescheming of the entire NOAA ENC suite with a regular, gridded layout for ENC charts, as outlined in NOAA’s National Charting Plan. No corresponding NOAA raster nautical chart products in Etolin Strait will be produced. This is in keeping with Coast Survey’s “ENC-only” production concept, which generally maintains the current raster chart product coverage, but only creates new larger scale coverage in the ENC product line.

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Coast Survey spotlight: Meet John Doroba

John aboard the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada as they perform autonomous underwater vehicle operations near Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

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.


John Doroba, physical scientist

“Once I saw the mission I was hooked. It was the best job a recent graduate who loved being in the field could ask for, especially when you get to travel all around the country. Where else could I practice my love for science, utilize my education, solve real world problems that serve a purpose, and directly impact people in a positive way?”

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NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson tests drone use for shoreline mapping

By, Lt. j.g. Matt Sharr, NOAA, and Lt. Charles Wisotzkey, NOAA

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey and the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) recently conducted operational tests of small unmanned aerial systems — or drones — on board NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson in support of survey operations conducted along the south coast of Puerto Rico. The tests show the potential of imagery from low-cost off-the-shelf drones to meet NOAA survey specifications for near-shore and shoreline feature mapping. This could replace traditional shoreline verification and mapping techniques used by NOAA hydrographic survey field units. Potential benefits of using drones for shoreline mapping include: improved data collection efficiency compared to data collection from small skiffs; more accurate feature investigation than traditional techniques; and, most importantly, removal of personnel from potentially dangerous situations (i.e. survey in close proximity to features being mapped). Continue reading “NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson tests drone use for shoreline mapping”

Seismic inter-agency collaborations on NOAA Ship Rainier

Rainier crew practice deploying the Edgetech Sub-bottom 512 Chirp profiler

By Ensign Airlie Pickett, NOAA

NOAA Ship Rainier spent September completing a multi-leg, joint collaboration project investigating deep offshore areas of the southern California coast. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) partnered with NOAA to support a month-long mission to collect geophysical data along the outer continental shelf of California where the area in question features a number of different geologic structures and processes. Continue reading “Seismic inter-agency collaborations on NOAA Ship Rainier”