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NOAA uses uncrewed marine systems to survey offshore wind energy sites

DriX uncrewed surface vehicle seen through a vessel window

In fall of 2023 NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Uncrewed Marine Systems Division of NOAA’s Uncrewed Systems Operations Center (UxSOC), their industry partner Exail and academic partner the University of Rhode Island Inner Space Center conducted field operations utilizing an uncrewed marine system to survey marine resources in current and potential offshore wind farm lease areas.  

As offshore wind energy development grows around the nation, NOAA is working to enable sustainable, safe, inclusive and informed development. Uncrewed systems can serve as a critical tool for performing surveys in wind farm regions that are difficult to access using standard survey methods. 

The recent field operations involved using a DriX uncrewed surface vehicle to collect information on the ocean conditions, marine life and seafloor within existing and under-development offshore wind farm areas using multiple scientific sensors, like sonars and echosounders. The DriX was able to collect data within 82 feet of a functional wind turbine (approximately the distance between bases on a baseball field). 

Operations of traditional crewed research vessels in such close proximity to a wind turbine may prove more difficult than using uncrewed systems like the DriX. It is important to gather data around the wind turbines as marine life use the structures to acquire food and protection. The DriX surveys were designed to cover large regions encompassing designated wind farm areas, and to survey the current and proposed turbine locations at finer scales. 

By gathering data at proposed turbine locations, NOAA is able to make comparisons of environmental changes that occur before and after turbine construction. This project has shown that uncrewed surface vehicles can be useful tools for operating and collecting data within vessel restricted areas. These operations are just one example of how NOAA is informing transparent and data-driven decisions regarding offshore wind energy development. 

Growing NOAA’s Uncrewed System Fleet 

Beyond offshore wind energy development, NOAA is invested in improving the overall safety and efficiency of data collection efforts through the use of uncrewed systems. In support of these efforts, the UxSOC recently purchased a Slocum autonomous underwater glider, and is procuring another DriX to add to its growing fleet of uncrewed marine systems.  

Uncrewed systems field operations – like that of the DriX in offshore wind farm sites – enhance NOAA’s understanding of different technologies and improve the agency’s ability to transition uncrewed systems to routine operations.

Photo: The DriX uncrewed surface vehicle as it transited to a survey site as viewed through the windows of the NOAA R/V Gloria Michelle. Credit: Lt. j.g. Trevor Grams/NOAA