EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Weather forecasting is expected to further improve when six Saildrones begin to explore the Gulf Stream waters off the East Coast.

Saildrone, a San Francisco-based company, provides unmanned vessels to government, universities and commercial organizations to gather ocean and weather data.

The Saildrones have one sail and use the wind to move through the water. Solar panels power all of the onboard electronics.

A Saildrone passing in front of Rose Island in Newport in January 2019.

In January 2019, a Saildrone left Newport Harbor to study the Gulf Stream for one month. That vessel encountered frozen sea spray after it left Rhode Island waters.

Once the Saildrone hit the warm Gulf Stream waters south of New England, the ice melted and data was collected for 18 days before a 30-foot wave damaged the vessel.

It was able to reach Bermuda safely, but the data collection was cut short by 12 days. Still, important measurements were taken for Jaime Palter and her team at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

“The Gulf Stream is a very powerful ocean current. It transports 30 million cubic meters of water per second,” Palter said. That is four times the amount of water carried by all the world’s fresh water rivers combined.

The Gulf Stream, located off the United States East Coast, highlighted by the arrows.

This river of warm water can influence climate and weather patterns both here in the United States and in Western Europe.

“So really, if we’re talking about medium term forecasting to two weeks, we want to know where the Gulf Stream is,” said Dr. Philip Browne of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), which is more commonly known as the European computer model.

The six Saildrones are expected to leave Newport for the Gulf Stream later this year to gather more crucial data for climate and weather researchers.

“It’ll be measuring temperature, humidity, wind speed, all of that. It’s basically like a research vessel below the ocean measuring sea-surface temperature, sea-surface salinity, oxygen and carbon,” Palter said.

A Saildrone in the Newport Shipyard in January 2019

Palter is interested in the carbon dioxide absorbed by the Gulf Stream. The data obtained can help researchers better understand global warming.

Palter also wants to learn more about where that absorption is happening and what physics allows the Gulf Steam to absorb the carbon.

Palter said that will give them more robust predictions going into the future.

“The ocean provides this service of removing about 1/4 of the CO2 that humans emit into the atmosphere,” Palter said. “So, we really want to see if that ocean CO2 will persist into the future.”

Browne said the Doppler radar on the Saildrones will give them information about the Gulf Stream currents and positioning.

“It’s a 3-D picture which will allow us to figure out how to improve our model and that’s something we have not had before,” Browne said.

The project will be funded in part by a $1.7 million grant from google.org, an arm of Google which, according to its website, brings “the best of Google to help solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges.”