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NOAA testing new marine drone to survey Gulf of Alaska fish populations

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is testing out a new, marine drone called DriX this summer to help survey fish populations in the waters off Alaska’s coast. The new technology could transform the work it does, from stock assessments for fisheries to marine mapping.

The DriX is essentially an unmanned, robotic boat, and looks kind of like the top part of a bright red submarine just visible at the water’s surface. There’s a couple ways to control it – from the research vessel Oscar Dyson, or remotely, using Starlink satellite internet.

“It’s probably about two and a half feet wide total, about 24 feet long, and it’s powered by a diesel engine,” said Alex De Robertis, a biologist with NOAA Fisheries.

De Robertis said DriX is a big first for the agency – and there’s not much technology like it anywhere else.

“Five years ago, you couldn’t do this,” he said. “Ten years ago, this was science fiction.”

That’s because although DriX is physically small, it has big potential for transforming the way researchers complete stock assessments for Alaska’s fisheries.

A pod under the vessel is equipped with sonar equipment that sends pulses of sound out into the water. The signals bounce back when they reach something – think of it like a high-tech fish finder.

Scientists can then combine that data with data from trawl surveys to get a better picture of the midwater column, where fish like pollock are typically found.

NOAA also plans to use DriX for coastal mapping.

“The basic idea here is that the ship and the robot are going to be side by side working in the same area,” said De Robertis. “The robot is going to make half the acoustic measurements and the ship is going to trawl where it sees fish and where the robot sees fish.”

Scientists have only tested out the DriX in Puget Sound. This summer is a big trial run, though. The DriX will be used in the Gulf of Alaska for the first time – and in tandem with research teams completing midwater stock assessments aboard the Oscar Dyson. Researchers will compare the data to see how the DriX performed.

When the DriX isn’t in use it will be stored on the deck of the Oscar Dyson. That’s another big part of this summer’s test run – to see how feasible it is to actually use the marine drone in Alaska.

“How do we do this launch and recover it from a ship and, and sort of incorporate it in all of our operations? And really, the only way to do that is to actually do it,” said De Robertis.

If it all goes according to plan, the DriX might end up being a regular part of the surveys in the future.