Boaters rely on NOAA’s nautical charts for depth measurements so they don’t accidently ground on sandbars or other underwater obstructions. NOAA gets these measurements by using hydrographic survey technology from onboard ships and smaller boats. Sometimes, though, the water may be too shallow for safe operation of the survey vessels. LIDAR systems systems can be used in some cases, but that technology doesn’t work well in murky water.
NOAA is experimenting with autonomous surface vehicles (ASV) to reach and survey the shallowest of areas found on nautical charts. ASVs, which operate at the surface of water, can measure depths in areas as shallow as one foot, reaching areas close to piers, pilings, and the shoreline.
ASVs operate without an operator onboard; they are controlled by a crew working adjacently or are programmed to operate automatically. NOAA is working to improve the ASVs’ autonomy, so they can work more independently. With more autonomy, survey ships can operate a larger fleet of ASVs without adding additional operators.
Another benefit of using ASVs is that hydrographers are able to calibrate the boats and put them into use quickly, without the need for additional installation and integration of a survey system.