Erie County, Pa. (WJET/WFXP/ — Move aside boaters as an unmanned crew has taken to Lake Erie waters.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is using autonomous surface and underwater vehicles on the lake from mid-July through September 2023. According to a release, the goal is to improve fishery surveys across the entire lake in cooperation with several public, private and nonprofit partners in both the U.S. and Canada.

So what’s the sitch?

On July 14, a wind and solar-powered, uncrewed surface vehicle called a “Saildrone Explorer” was launched out of Erie, Pennsylvania. The vehicle is equipped with several environmental sensors (both under and above the water) — including a fisheries echosounder that uses sound to detect fish.

The saildrone will travel throughout Lake Erie’s western, central and eastern basins, circumnavigating the lake in a clockwise direction through the end of September and is operated by Saildrone, Inc.

A map of Lake Erie that includes the rough dates of operation of autonomous and crewed vehicles by USGS, Saildrone, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), and State and Ontario partners throughout Lake Erie during summer 2023.

“This is the first time a long-range wind-powered autonomous surface vehicle will be used on Lake Erie,” said Dr. Mark DuFour, USGS Fishery Biologist. “USGS is looking forward to working closely with Lake Erie partners on this mission to inform fishery management decisions.”

Why this does matter?

The research these autonomous vehicles gather is used to study a variety of factors affecting Lake Erie — including the effect of harmful algal blooms on yellow perch in the western basin, detection of large species such as lake whitefish, burbot and lake trout in the eastern basin and the effect of low-oxygen zones on bottom-dwelling fish in the central basin.

Along with the saildrone, a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRAUV) will be deployed near Fairport Harbor, Ohio for a week in mid-September. The LRAUV is operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and will travel at 5-15 meters depth.

“Lake Erie is home to a world-class fishery and millions of lakeside residents and vacationers,” said David Nihart, fisheries management chief for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRAUV) ‘Tethys’ upon retrieval after a 400 km mission in Lake Michigan to collect the environmental DNA (bits of DNA drifting in the environment) of pelagic prey fish through a partnership between the USGS Great Lakes Science Center and the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. (Photo Credit: Peter Esselman, USGS)

“Monitoring Lake Erie fish populations is integral to sustainable management of the recreational and commercial Lake Erie fishery, but fish community changes and dynamic habitat conditions often create monitoring challenges. We are excited to collaborate with the USGS to explore the use of autonomous vehicles for monitoring Lake Erie fish populations and fisheries,” Nihart continued.

Scientists will compare the data gathered using each platform to address potential sampling biases in existing surveys.

Why the use of drones?

Fisheries acoustic surveys on Lake Erie have previously used diesel-powered research vessels that are relatively loud. As a result, it could impact the data collected from near-surface and near-bottom fish.

The saildrone and the LRAUV help leverage advantages for fishery research that may address these potential biases in existing fisheries acoustic surveys.

Saildrones are quieter and may detect more fish swimming closer to the surface than noisier vessels. The LRAUV, which operates in the middle of the water column and has sensors looking up and down, may detect bottom-dwelling and surface-dwelling fish more accurately than traditional fishery research vessels or the saildrone.

“Saildrone provides cost-effective and environmentally friendly oceanographic data collection to scientists working to protect and understand Earth’s oceans and lakes. With two years of successful data collection missions in lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior, Saildrone is proud to continue to support USGS’s data needs this year in Lake Erie and Michigan,” said Matt Womble, senior director of ocean data programs at Saildrone.

Notices about both autonomous vehicles have been given to mariners via the U.S. Coast Guard. The release states the acoustic technology used in the study is not harmful to people or animals and won’t interfere with sonar, communications equipment or similar electronics.

For safety reasons, boaters should maintain a distance of 1500 feet from the saildrone and LRAUV. You can learn more about the saildrone and its mission on the USGS website.