Vela seaweed drone sailboat launched into Lake Okeechobee from Harbor Branch

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PAHOKEE – A remote-controlled sailboat set sail from Pahokee Marina on Tuesday for a 10-day to two-week mission to search for blue-green algae in the vastness of Lake Okeechobee.

But he quickly ran into a barrier wall protecting the marina.

A Seattle-based crew navocean, the boat builder, and Florida Atlantic University Oceanographic Institute of the General Directorate of the Port at Fort Pierce, who is overseeing the search, retrieved the boat and made some adjustments.

Soon he was sailing the open waters of the lake again.

“A slight technical difficulty,” said Jordon Beckler, assistant research professor at the Harbor Branch at the head of the project, with a smile.

The crew wanted to give the media a photo op, Beckler said, and released the boat too close to the wall. Sending navigation signals to the boat via satellite takes about a minute, while the north wind pushes the boat against the wall.

Type of algae and intensity

The boat, named “Vela” from the Italian word for “sail,” is equipped to collect data that will help researchers determine the type and intensity of algae in the lake.

When the high waters of Lake O threaten the dyke that surrounds it, water is discharged east into the St. Lucia River and west into the Caloosahatchee River. If there is an algal bloom in the lake, the discharges spread it into river estuaries, where they harm the environment, economy and human health.

Following: Scientists agree that discharges from Lake O cause algae blooms in the St. Lucia River

Following: What are the discharges from Lake O?

Several government agencies are already taking water samples by hand to check for algae in Lake O, especially during the hot, humid summer months when blooms are likely.

“Vela” will allow researchers to “put scientific tools where we want them, when we want them and at a much lower cost” than manual sampling, Beckler said.

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the Lord of the Rings

The boat will send data collected from onboard solar collectors via satellite to a regional office certified by NOAA in the Integrated ocean observation system.

The data will then be published online in real time on the Gulf AUV network and long-term storage facility for data archiving.

The developers of the installation must be fans of “Lord of the Rings”: this acronym is “GANDALF,” as in the wizard Gandalf the Gray.

For its maiden voyage on Lake O, “Vela” will follow a star-shaped course that researchers have designed to cover and ply much of the lake’s open water.

Researchers can also send “Vela” instructions to change its course if, for example, satellite images indicate an overgrowth in a section of the lake the boat could study.

George Foreman Grill

Using wind power, the boat can cross Lake O in about a day, Beckler said.

Autonomous sailboat “can read the wind,” said Navocean president and chief designer Scott Duncan. “He’s smart enough to tack or do whatever it takes with his sails to get to where we tell him to go.”

Beckler compared the boat to a George Foreman grill: “You just set it up and forget about it.”

“Vela” can also withstand strong winds. During a test last weekend in the Banana River section of the Indian River Lagoon, he said, the boat’s sensors measured winds of up to 54 mph.

The boat is drawing about 2 feet 6 inches of water, so it will not be sent into the lake marshes. The boat’s body and sails are bright orange and marked “SEARCH”, so boaters can see it in open water.

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4 oceanic support

The boat’s longest “mission” so far has been 16 days, Duncan said. The plans are to slowly continue to expand this.

“He won’t run out of gas,” he said. With sunny weather, “Vela” could stay outside for up to six months.

Following: See TCPalm’s full coverage of water issues

Harbor Branch is in partnership with 4ocean, a global group known primarily for removing waste from the ocean and coastlines, to help fund the project.

The boat, which costs around $ 75,000, is loaned by Navocean.

Sea PRISM project

Last August, Harbor Branch installed a SeaPRISM on a platform in the middle of Lake O. The sensor developed by NASA can look into the lake every hour and, by the color of the water, determine the amount of blue-green algae it contains.

Following: NASA-made algae monitor installed in Lake O

Real-time data from the Photometer Revision for Incident Surface Measurements (SeaPRISM) is transmitted to NASA and made available to researchers (and the public) on the agency’s website. Aeronet website in a few hours.

One of the tasks of the boat on this first mission, Beckler said, will be to walk in concentric circles around the SeaPRISM to verify its data.

Nav 2: By the numbers

  • Weight: 85 pounds (plus payloads)
  • Length: 6 feet, 6 inches
  • Disorganized: 2 feet, 6 inches
  • Rigging: Mainsail and jib in high visibility fabric
  • Speed: 1 to 3 knots (approximately 1.2 to 3.4 mph)
  • Electric drive: 1 to 3 knot boost (around 1.2 to 3.4 mph)
  • Power System: 12 volt solar panel
  • Duration of missions: Up to 6 months
  • Cost: Approximately $ 75,000 for basic configurations


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