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While in the Auckland Islands studying the recovering population of southern right whales, an Otago University team was sidetracked on rather a different task.
The team, led by Professor Steve Dawson and Dr Will Rayment, was called on to recover a Saildrone stranded at Sandy Bay on Enderby Island.
Launched in San Francisco in August 2015 with the goal of making the first unmanned circumnavigation of Earth, Saildrone 127, a 7m-long surface vehicle with a small carbon-fibre wing-sail, nearly made it.
It can sail autonomously for many months at a time, programmed to hold its station or follow a particular track, and can be re-tasked as required.
Prof Dawson said using the Saildrone was a new way to study the ocean and atmosphere.
"Data from a wide range of on-board sensors are streamed in real time via satellite, so scientists can study remote ocean areas at a tiny fraction of the usual cost.
"The newest version even has a recorder for whale sounds, and an echo-sounder for studying aggregations of fish and krill. It's very exciting technology.''
According to the company Saildrone's founder, Richard Jenkins, this particular drone spent too long on the equator, taking measurements for El Nino studies.
It reached Cape Horn late - in winter - where it encountered terrific storms.
"We lost contact shortly after it rounded Cape Horn. From there the vessel's track is a mystery that downloading the on-board data-logger might solve,'' Mr Jenkins said.
The company now planned to launch two of the latest generation Saildrones from Bluff next month in an attempt to circumnavigate Antarctica.
Prof Dawson was amazed that the Saildrone was found intact, with only its outriggers and wing-sail damaged, something he said was testimony to the strength of the craft.
"This tiny unmanned yacht has survived the world's roughest oceans for almost three years.
"Considering the impressive array of data Saildrone can collect, it's clear that this will be a key technology for monitoring our changing world.''
The Saildrone and its on-board data was being stored by the Department of Conservation in Dunedin, where Mr Jenkins was expected to retrieve it from next month.
Mr Jenkins is also the holder of the world land speed record for sailing craft (203kmh), experience that helped in the design and build of Saildrone's hull and wind-sail systems.
- Staff reporter