Drifter Newsletter #15

Drifter Newsletter #15

October 2016


New Rigs

We have been working on an eco-friendly drogued drifter.  It is a star-shaped drogue (made like some of the commercial surface drifters sold on the west coast) but now has a 1”-bamboo frame and cotton sails hung below on a long tether (typically 10m).  It can have a natural mushroom flotation, bag-of-rocks ballast, and various components to take up the wave shock (subsurface wooden floats and/or sections of bungee tether). There is an extensive googledoc on this development which we can share with anyone interested. While we have only deployed one thus far in the real ocean  and it only survived five days before running aground, we have built four more and plan to deploy them later this year. It can be rigged as a surface drifter as seen in the picture going into Nantucket Sound.


Another new development is in sensor packaging. We have rigged a solar powered RaspberryPI-Zero with multiple temperature sensors and have it reporting to the Iridium satellite system. The new AP3 transmitter is now two-way system so we can now remotely change the sampling interval on the drifter or ask it “where are you now?” at anytime.


Proposals submitted

Being busy with more deployments this year than any other year, we have not had much time for proposal writing.  A few of our colleagues have submitted drifter proposals to NSF and other agencies but nothing is certain. One avenue we have finally began to pursue is foundations and/or corporations rather than gov’t agencies. Cassie Stymiest has recently joined us in a part time effort to find some funding in 2017.


One strategy we often use is to take advantage of NSF “outreach” requirement. Any physical oceanographic proposals that involve an observational component can easily fill this the 10% requirement to do outreach by having their local schools build drifters and then deploy them.


New Partners

While we usually list several new partners that have joined our effort, this year the list  this time would fill half a page.  More than 50 high schools in New England were involved with building and deploying drifters in 2016. To see an up-to-date  list, see the website:  http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter


Annual review of transmitters and “decommissioning” process

Since the satellite service providers charge monthly fees regardless of whether we are using transmitters or not, it is very important that we “decommission” any transmitters that are either lost at sea or not being used in the coming year. You also need to be aware of how many transmissions you paid for and how many you have used. See this site to get an idea of where you stand with transmission use.


Lesson Plans

We still hope to improve our “lesson plan” options on the studentdrifters.org pages.  Please send any ideas on how to improve that.  (Note: The construction manuals there also need to be updated with all the new developments as noted above.) Part of our effort in 2016 was to hold a series of “drifter data workshops” in different areas of New England. Each session has (and will) include participation by teachers from several schools and each was invited to a googledoc on “what-to-do-with-drifter-data”. Teachers interested in joining this effort, email james.manning@noaa.gov.


Collaboration with Educational Passages

Each year we are connecting closer with EP based in Belfast Maine. While their 5’ unmanned sailboats are certainly not  “drifters” they provides schools with a) another option to learn about the ocean, the wind, and, because these units move about twice the speed of a drifter and arrive in distant lands, b) exposure to other countries. We have been fortunate to work with them in developing a sensor package to install on board. With plenty of room on deck, we could install a solar panel that could not otherwise include on a drifter buoy. This development is also share in a googledoc.



Drifter Newsletter #14

February 2015

New Rigs

Now that  dozens of the new aluminum-framed “Irina” drifters have been deployed, we can assess their performance. The one problem seems to be that, while the  ⅜”  spars do not break, they bend easy.  Since nearly all of them are found bent when these drifter comes ashore, we do not know if that bending is occurring at sea or only when it hits the beach.


Experimental all-wood “Emily” drifter prior to deployment

In response to this Irina uncertainty and more interest in shallow water deployments that likely to encounter multiple groundings, we started thinking about yet another design. The “Emily” drifter, named after Emily Flaherty of Salem Sound Coastwatch who has recently proposed a drifter project in collaboration with the Gulf of Maine Institute to EPA’s Environmental Education Program, was built. As pictured below, this experimental drifter has wood paneling for sails. We tested this design with overnight soaks in the pool and adjusted the ballast to be 10lbs which allowed the unit to be stable in the water and still provide several inches of freeboard. We plan to send the first prototype out in Cape Cod Bay with Bobby Martin on route to his scalloping grounds in late Feb 2015. Stay tuned for results.

Proposals submitted and accepted

We have submitted proposals to both “NOAA B-WET”, “NOAA’s Marine Debris” and  “EPA Environmental Education” in the last few months. John Terry (Gulf of Maine Institute) is lead on the B-WET proposal and, as mentioned above, Emily Flaherty, led the EPA proposal with John’s help. John Galuzzo (South Shore Natural Science Center, Norwell MA) received a grant of $20k which gets a few drifters to Massachusetts high schools south of Boston to be deployed in the Spring of 2015.

New Partners

We are happy to add the following list of institutions/schools who have just joined us this year and are deploying drifters for the first time:

  • Jacksonville Marine Lab
  • Quincy MA High School
  • Plymouth MA High School
  • Scituate MA High School
  • Weymouth MA High School
  • Middlesex Community College
  • Penobscot East Resource Center

Annual review of transmitters and “decommissioning” process

Since the satellite service providers charge monthly fees regardless of whether we are using transmitters or not, it is very important that we “decommission” any transmitters that are either lost at sea or not being used in the coming year. You also need to be aware of how many transmissions you paid for and how many you have used. See this site to get an idea of where you stand with transmission use.

Future Plans

We hope to improve our “lesson plan” options on the studentdrifters.org pages.  Please send any ideas on how to improve that. The construction manuals also need to be up-to-date with all the new developments as noted above.


Drifter Newsletter #13

Drifter Newsletter #13

October 2014


New Rigs

As reported last year, our latest surface drifter has an aluminum frame. Dozens of these “Irinas” have now been deployed with varying success but, in general, seem to be a good easy solution. The first variation of these consisted of a 4’ length of 1”-square aluminum pipe with a mast-extension made from either circular aluminum pipe or wooden broom handles but now we have done away with the mast-extension and simply use a 5’ length of square pipe for the mast along with 4’-lengths of ⅜” aluminum rods for spars. The transmitter is mounted to a 5” length of 1”x4” wood which is secured to the mast with a few L-bracketts bolted in place with 6/32” stainless (see studentdrifters.org).


We worked on these new designs in series of drifter building workshops in 2014 with the three most extensive sessions being sponsored by WHOI/NERACOOS, the Gulf of Maine Institute, and the Ocean Exploration Trust.  As usual, new ideas come out of these workshops often coming from the young participants.  One untested idea, for example, is to use a 3’-length of “floatie” material around the top half of the mast as an alternative to using  buoys for flotation.  We have shied away from using this material in the past thinking that it may not hold up to months of seawater and sun but, perhaps if it was wrapped in some sort of protective coat, it may work!  One advantage is that these “floaties” are readily found in any large department stores. Other ideas coming from the students is to secure the acorn buoys horizontally rather than vertically and, in the case of the “Colin” drogued flotation, insert a 1-meter length of pipe through the surface float to keep it more vertically stable (less roll) and therefore have the transmitter more likely facing skyward.


Another flotation solution comes to us from the Newburyport MA middle-school students who cut out three 8”-diameter circular slices of 2” pink insulation material and sandwiched them together with a few pieces of exterior plywood. Their drifter lasted months at sea before it came shore in very good shape.  They also discovered that the transmitter can stand vertically and still provide good fixes. So, there is no end to the ideas on how to improve these designs and we continue to provide an engineering challenge to all the students involved.


A few dozen  surface drifters were deployed this past year using a 4X4 wooden masts.  We first experimented with this design during the response to the BP oil spill in 2010.  While we did not have much success, those rigged this year by both graduate students at UCONN and government scientist in Scotland, seem to be doing fine.


We deployed several more drogued drifters this year using the popup leaf bags. We had one last for nearly a month in Nantucket Sound and another circled around Cape Cod Bay for over a month before it finally escaped the bay and dragged on sand bar on the outer beach. One of the issues with these units is the lack of “drogue-loss-sensors” normally secured to commercial variations of drogued drifters.  While it is usually obvious when a drifter loses a drogue, it is not always detectable and one needs to be careful on how to interpret the tracks. Another issue in shallow water is the velocity statistics can be biased due to the drifter occasionally dragging the bottom. Since the popup leaf bags are not made of very durable material, they can tear in rocky bottoms. One option we are looking into as an alternative to leaf bags is the child’s play tunnels as sold at Toy-R-Us, for example. Another problem we ran into this year is that the the drogued drifters fitted with several shackles are easy prey to fishermen thinking they have come across marine debris. We have learned to document the purpose of the drifter more clearly on the drogues flotation.



Our two biggest proposals this year were unsuccessful.   We were most excited about one we submitted to Canada’s Marine Environment Ocean Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) along with several Canadian universities.  We were proposing to hold a series of workshops at these universities where we not only built drifters but worked on ways to simulate particle tracks through numerical flow fields.  We are committed to this new aspect of the program in generating computer-generated drifter tracks. We still plan to have a small workshop this fall in Woods Hole and are inviting anyone you may be interested in this “particle tracking” activity.


Earlier this year we started looking into various charitable  foundations who may be interested in funding  STEM projects. We have started to compile various googlesheets listing these foundations as well as lists of drifter users and their contact info.  We have archived a collection of mini-proposals that can be adjusted according to particular RFPs so, if anyone hears of a relevant opportunity, let us know and we will “share” these documents.  Our hope is to be able to provide schools with transmitters and satellite fees without their needing to apply for funding themselves. Most public schools can not afford the ~$600 needed to deploy a drifter. We are beginning to organize some proposals to go into both “NOAA B-WET” and perhaps “NSF Advanced Informal STEM Learning” in the coming months. John Terry (Gulf of Maine Institute) is leading the B-WET proposal. We will be talking with many of our colleagues at the Annual New England Ocean Science Education Collaborative meeting in 6-7 November, 2014.


New Partners and Individuals

We are happy to add the following list of institutions/schools who have just joined us this year:

  • Gray Reef National Marine Sanctuary
  • Univ. of Maryland
  • South Shore Natural Science Center (pictured below)
  • Coast Encounters
  • Concord MA Public Schools
  • Nock Middle School
  • New Hampshire Science Teachers Association
  • Seacoast Science Center
  • SeaKeepers Society
  • Ocean Exploration Trust
  • Mystic Aquarium.


A big acknowledgement to Anthony Kirincich and Irina Rypina (WHOI) for funding about a dozen drifters for teachers with their NSF education and outreach allocation, to Cassie Stymiest (NERACOOS) for promoting the drifter project a few national conferences, Jessica McManus (Mass Audubon) for her enthusiastic effort to teach drifters to summer school students,  Abby Smith (WHSTEP) for her help with drifter promotion this past year,  student interns Conner Warren, Ed Crosier, Nkosi Muse, Huanxin Xu, Bingwei Ling, Zhoabin Dong, and Jian Cui for help with coding this past summer, and, as always, Erin Pelletier (GOMLF) for keeping our accounts in order.


Well Maine High School Drifter Project

Well Maine High School Drifter Project

New Website to Check the Number of Your Transmissions Against Those You Paid For

See this site is very much “in progress”.  This is only updated on a near-monthly basis but at least it gives you an idea of where you stand with transmission use.


Decommissioning old transmitters

It is very important that you notify us when to “decommission”  old transmitters that you do not plan to use in the coming year.  This way the satellite company can no longer charge the $2.45/month “maintenance fee”.  Please let us know if you have any transmitters that are still being charged.


Future Plans

We hope to improve our “lesson plan” options on the studentdrifters.org pages.  The construction manuals also need to be up-to-date with all the new developments as noted above.


Where the last few years we started tracking unmanned sailboats on the same pages as the drifters, we hope to start tracking large marine animals (whales, sharks, turtles, seals, etc).  We have worked out a way to epoxy the transmitters so they can survive a deep dive.  While we do not expect too many fixes since the animals has to be at the surface long enough for a fix, we could potentially provide biologist with a low-cost solution to multi-month position tracking.  In at least one case, we have tracked a sea lion off the coast of California for more than a month and have documented its movement to various outcrops where it hauls out.

Drifter transmitters now attached to animals courtesy of Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

Drifter transmitters now attached to animals courtesy of Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

Also, we have a new transmitter called the “AP2S” that allows us to attach external sensors such as temperature. We hope to be installing this new transmitter not only on drifters and animals but on commercial fishing boats as a means of ship-to-shore telemetry of any kind of data. The National Weather Service, for example, is interested in getting routine readings of air temp, wind, and humidity.  There are lots of possibilities that, one way or another, may provide us with the funding needed to do science and STEM education.


As I hope to devote more time to research and development, the day-to-day drifter operations may be transferred to others in the future. Erin will continue to handle the accounts and be liaison with satellite companies. Abby will continue to provide some coordination with educators and Cassie with IOOS.  The hope is that we have a team of individuals to handle various tasks and that it is always fun for those involved. It is not fun we shouldn’t be doing it.



Drifter Newsletter #12


New Designs

While keeping with the standard size and shape, we continue to modify the surface drifter materials to minimize the cost, effort, and plastic. As reported in the last newsletter, the new bamboo-framed “Cassie”  is the most eco-friendly of all the surface drifters to date. We have now deployed a few dozen of these and find they do fairly well.  A few have failed within a few weeks probably having to due with weak mast extensions or unsecured fittings but, in general, they are nearly as robust as other wooden or plastic models. The most exciting new development, however, is the aluminum-framed “Irina” drifter as pictured below. What makes this new rig so attractive is that it is easier to build,  made from materials more easily found at local hardware stores, and does not require much ballast. We use a 1”-diameter aluminum pipe (sections of old ski poles) as our mast extension which is simply inserted and bolted to a 1”-square aluminum pipe mast. We deployed the first prototype on the last day of August and it seemed to be do fine.


We are also excited about the subsurface drogued “Colin” drifters that seem to be holding up as well. Aside from the transmitter affixed to a lobster-buoy surface float, these are also made from materials available at our local hardware store. The drogue is made with series of pop-up leaf bags (with bottoms removed) which is attached to the float with a stainless bridle and tether.

New On-line Construction Manuals

As noted in the last newsletter, we post instructions on building these new drifters at  studentdrifters.org.  The site includes the full history of the various experiments in design, shopping list for parts, and drop-down menus with step-by-step procedures in building the various options. The description of the new drogue construction is not yet complete. This construction manual site is separate from the main drifter site at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter .

New Schools now participating

Since the last newsletter, new schools joining the effort are the U. Connecticut, U. Michigan,  Rutgers, Perdue, and the Florida Studies Institute.  A total of 85 drifters have been deployed so far in 2013 and, as documented near the bottom of the main drifter page, we expect at least another 30 in the next few months.  We are excited this month to have several drifters contributing  to the “Gliderpalooza” operations on the east coast. All our drifter tracks are also visible on both MARACOOS and NERACOOS websites.

Animal Tracking Update

While we have further developed the submersible tracker, we have yet to attach one to an actual animal. Some have been in the hands of various biologist but none have been secured to any animals as we had hope this summer. Part of the issue is just getting permits to do so.

Unmanned Sailboat Tracking

If you click on the “tracks for the last 7 days” on the main drifter site, you will see that we are now tracking the unmanned sailboats as released by various schools participating with the “Educational Passages” group.  They have formed a non-profit and are enthusiastically involved in engaging more schools. A few of these boats are out in the middle of the Atlantic now and several more will be deployed this fall.

Refurbishing and/or Decommissioning Transmitters

We now have a reliable source of professionally-built battery packs that can be swapped for tired ones. We had tried to make our own in the past but were never sure of our workmanship. So, if you have any old transmitters that are not responding to the dongle, please send them in to be checked out.  Also, please let us know if you have any transmitters in your possession that you do not plan on using soon.  The service providers charge us $2.35/mth unless we “decommission” them.

Drifter Building Workshops

We are planning to convene several high schools in the spring of 2014 in New Hampshire or Southern Maine to build drifters.  While this event will be sponsored by the Gulf of Maine Marine Educators Associations, we hope to have several other smaller events next year in Woods Hole.


Drifter Newsletter #11

June 2013


Additions to the drifter website

Just in the past few weeks, a new component to the drifter website was added. The 2nd link at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter points to the “construction manuals”. Instead of sharing these manuals as pdf or doc files, we now have an on-line version that is updated regularly as we find new ways of doing things, add more pics and videos.

Results of 2013 deployments thus far

A total of 39 drifters have been deployed thus far in 2013. Most of these deployments are for educational purposes where K-12 students have been involved with the whole process including decorating the sails, meeting the fishermen who deploy the units, and following its track on the website. The students at Newburyport High School north of Boston, for example, have been heavily involved in the study of currents. They setup a lab experiment with mini-drifters in a tank of water blown around by a electric fan wind and water hose rivers. The drifters they made in class and had deployed offshore a few weeks ago are now on their way to Nova Scotia!


As shown on the main drifter page, there are several more interesting tracks of Dick Baldwin’s unmanned sailboats. There are several underway at the time of this writing including one that made it to the mid-Atlantic, turned around, and is now headed up the eastern seaboard in the track of a typical hurricane. We hope to secure drogues to some of these boats in the coming year.


The bamboo-framed “Cassie” drifter

 One of the weaknesses of the last few “eco-friendly” drifter designs was the wooden-dowels used for spars. They would often break when the drifter washed ashore. So, in the spring of 2013, we think we have developed a solution to this problem. Since we have only deployed a few of them so far, we can’t be sure but we are fairly confident this will become are standard Davis-style surface drifter. The mast is made of 3” bamboo posts now sold at most ACE Hardwares in New England. Both the spars and the mast extension transmitter mount is made with 1” bamboo. The complete description of this drifter and how to build it is posted at the new website noted above. The drifter is named after Cassie Stymist who coordinated a series of drifter-building workshops this past winter when we first introduced this model.


The pop-up-leaf-bag-drogued “Colin” drifter

A drogued drifter is no longer cost prohibitive. We found we can lash a series of pop-up-leaf-bags, attached a 3-point 1/8” stainless bridle, and a tether to a relatively small surface float in order to construct a drogue to oceanographic standards with very little effort. All materials are likely available at your local hardware. We are using a large lobster buoy for our surface float and are experimenting with other alternatives such as mini-boats made of buoyant material. The construction manual will appear on the website mentioned earlier. The drifter is named after Colin Sage, a Massasoit Community College summer intern, working on its construction.


New schools involved with the program this year:

 Dartmouth High School (MA), Newburyport High School (MA), Swampscott High School (MA), Scituate Elementary (MA), Hull Elementary (MA), UCONN (CT), Brewster Family, School (MA), Gulf of Maine Institute (MA), Environmental Challenge Group of home schoolers (MA), New England Science and Sailing (CT), Massasoit Community College (MA), Global Learning,Charter School (MA), Falmouth High School (MA)


Refurbishing old TrackPack transmitters

 We are now building our own battery packs to refurbish old transmitters. While we are not certain how well our soldering jobs are holding up but we have a method to make them nevertheless. If you would like us to do the job, send in your old TrackPacks that no longer work so we can TRY to get them going again.


Tracking animals

 With help from a few summer interns, Jen Troubetaris and Gritidach Manakitivipart, we have been encapsulating old transmitters in 2-part marine epoxy so that they survive submergence in the water column. We hope to be attaching these units to large marine animals like seals and turtles and tether them behind sharks and entangled whales. If you know of any animal-tracking-marine-biologist, please send them our way. We think we have a low-cost solution.


Drifter-building workshops and presentations

 If you click on the third link of the main drifter page noted above, you will see the “process of getting involved with the project”. In that document is a list of past and future “drifter building workshops” where groups of teachers spend the day putting together drifters. We had a few in Falmouth MA back in December 2012. One in March 2013 was sponsored by NERACOOS and the Mass Marine Eduactors. We are planning one in Conneticut on June 19, 2013 and in northern New England on September 14, 2013. We also presented the drifter project at the annual Cambridge Science Festival in April 2013 and the Southern New England STEM Expo in May 2013.


Future Plans

 As mentioned in each “newsletter”, we continue to look for funding for more drifter-building workshops and satellite time. We are working with the tracker manufacturer and service provider to minimize the cost to the schools involved. We continue to reduce the cost down within the range of a typical mini-grant proposal but, ideally we hope to someday secure a large gov’t grant. This would supply the various schools with the raw material they need to construct these units and to have them connect with their local fishermen for routine deployments offshore. If you have ideas, please email james.manning@noaa.gov. We now have a collection of proposals that can be reworked to fit your plans.




Newsletter #10

Experiments on the eco-friendly “Dan Drifter”

Thanks to Dan Palance, a summer student at the NOAA lab in Woods Hole, a more eco-friendly drifter has been developed and tested. The “Dan Drifter” is much like the “Eddie Drifter” except it has wooden dowel spars and canvas cloth sails. It also uses a wooden-handled scrub brush as a extension of the mast and transmitter platform. While this new design has not yet proven itself, more deployments are currently underway. If interested, email james.manning@noaa.gov for the latest construction manual. We have also conducted some experiments on other alternatives including drogued drifters.

New transmitter options

There are a variety of new transmitter options from multiple companies. We have investigated a few and even tested some but have not found any that surpass the advantages of the TrackPack. Depending on your application, however, some of these new devices might be more cost effective for you. We tested the “FoxTrax cell phone” option, for example, that sells for a little more than $200 but the batteries only last for about 700 hits and the monthly subscription of near $20 is charged whether you use the unit or not. The advantage is the more frequent fixes for deployments within cell phone range.

Results of 2012 deployments thus far

Figure 1. Track of drifters built by NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Alumni.

A total of 49 drifters have been deployed thus far in 2012. One of the most interesting tracks is that of the unit deployed near a set of tagged turtles off Delaware in late May. After a few weeks on the shelf, it was entrained in the Gulf Stream with a few others but then got caught in a big warm core ring (see Figure 1). To follow the path of these drifters and other as they head towards the Azores visit http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/drift_tas_2012_1.html. As shown on the main drifter page, there are several other interesting tracks such as those from Dick Baldwin’s unmanned sailboats. Just in the last few days, we watched a few of them come ashore on the southeast corner of Newfoundland after more than 8000 kilometers of travel. He also has a few in the Gulf Stream headed towards the Azores.

New drifter deployers welcomed:

  • Bill Geppert at the Cape Henlopen High School who is working with the University of Delaware oceanographers
  • Scott Kendall (MATE participant) from the Grand Valley State University on Lake Michigan,
  • Mark Neary who works with Neal Pettigrew at UMaine Orono,
  • Jochen Schroer at New Brunswick’s NATECH Environmental Services Inc. of Canada.

Refurbishing old TrackPack transmitters

We have devise a method to refurbish old TrackPack transmitters by breaking open their housing, inserting a new battery pack (ordered from Hong Kong), and then rehousing them inside a “Otterbox 2000”. It works! If you would like us to do the job, send in your old TrackPacks that no longer work so we can try to get them going again.

The importance of “decommissioning” old transmitters

It is important that your old transmitters be “decommissioned” if they have either been a) lost or sea, b) water damaged, or c) you do not expect to use them within a year. Otherwise, the satellite company charges $2.65 dollars per month per unit for what they call a “maintenance fee”. You can always recommission them with a $30 “reprovisioning fee”.

Drifter-building presentations this fall

We have three presentations scheduled: Umass Boston (29 Sep), Massasoit Community College in Massachusetts (2 Oct) and URI Bay Campus (2 Nov). The URI event is part of the New England Ocean Science Education Collaboratives “Ocean Literacy” Workshop. All will be brief introductions to the program. We are looking for funding to conduct more extensive day-long workshops where participants actually build units to take home with them.

Future Plans

As mentioned in the last “newsletter”, we continue to look for funding for more drifter-building workshops and satellite time. We are working with the tracker manufacturer and service provider to minimize the cost to the schools involved. We continue to reduce the cost down within the range of a typical mini-grant proposal but, ideally we hope to someday secure a large gov’t grant. This would supply the various schools with the raw material they need to construct these units and to have them connect with their local fishermen for routine deployments offshore. If you have ideas, please email james.manning@noaa.gov. We now have a collection of proposals that can be reworked to fit your plans.

We encourage those who participated in a MATE drifter building session last year to contact us for help getting started with building and deploying.


Drifter Newsletter #9

New Developments in 2012
While funding is difficult to come by this year, we have managed to get at least some units in the water after joining forces with a few other groups doing educational/outreach work. As described individually below, we have started a collaboration with NOAA’s “Adopt-a-Drifter” and “Teacher-at- Sea” Programs as well as the “Educational Passages” Program. We continue our collaboration with the Marine Advanced Technology and Education folks as well as the National Marine Educators.  The alliance with these last two groups has resulted in deployments in other water bodies (Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, and in the Great Lakes) in 2012.

School teachers building drifters in Woods Hole

NOAA’s Teacher­-at­-Sea Program
Thanks to Jenn Annetta and others at the TAS alumni workshop in mid-May 2012, we were able to construct four “Eddie” drifters. See photo above by Shelley Dawicki (NEFSC). These will be deployed at the end of May 2012 off the coast of New Jersey in 50 meters of water. They will be deployed by Heather Hass (NEFSC) alongside turtles to test the idea that many of these animals are passive drifters.

NOAA’s Adopt­-a­-Drifter Program
Working with NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary folks and Diane Stanitski (ADP) in late April 2012,  we deployed one of our Davis­-style “Eddie”surface drifters alongside their drogued drifter. We hope to do more of these paired­-deployments to document the water­-following characteristics of the different drifter designs.  Ken Kostel, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute videographer on board, was able to produce a great underwater movie of the drifter. If you can view “.mov” files on your computer, you can see it at:

Educational Passages
Finally, another new collaboration is with Dick Baldwin from Belfast Maine who has a unique way to interest elementary and middle­-school children in the romance of sail and oceanography. He has unmanned mini­-sailboats deployed that sometimes land on distant shores and are recovered by other school children. We have started tracking some of his boats/drifters on our website at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/ .  This is actually a 3­way collaboration with the NOAA salmon researchers John Kocik and Paul Music who attach listening devices. They attempt  to capture locations of tagged salmon smolts. The two boats deployed in  the Gulf of Maine off the  R/V Henry Bigelow (see photo by Nathan Keith NEFSC) came ashore a few weeks later. Thanks to lobstermen (Greg Runge, Bobby Colbert) and the local harbor masters, they were recovered and will be redeployed at the end of May 2012 in the North Atlantic. They will join five others that are hopefully on their way to Europe!

Unmanned mini-sailboats by Educational Passages

Future Plans
As always, we continue to look for funding for more drifter­-building workshops and satellite time.  We are working with the tracker manufacturer and service provider to minimize the cost to the schools involved. We continue to reduce the cost  down within the range of a typical mini­-grant proposal but, ideally we hope to someday secure a large gov’t grant. This would supply the various schools with the raw material they need to construct these units and to have them connect with their local fishermen for routine deployments offshore.




Drifter Newsletter #8

New Drifter Users in 2011

The following institutions have recently joined our efforts to deploy drifters around the country:

Sea Education Association students preparing for a deployment.

UMASS Boston Math and Science Dept
UMASS Boston Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Science Dept
Mass Marine Educators
Quincy MA High School
Florida State University
Collaboration of Jacksonville University/Academy of Coastal and Environmental Studies/Clear Science/Terry Parker High School of the Duval County Public Schools
Zephyr Marine Education Foundation
Sea Education Association
URI Graduate School of Oceanography
Penn State University
We welcome these groups and hope they can spread the word on drifters through other local school systems. The Zephyr Foundation, in particular, has introduced hundreds of high school students to drifters this past summer.   They took students on a dozen short oceanographic cruises in Woods Hole waters and deployed drifters. This involved a different high school on each trip with dozens of students and teachers!

The “Engineering Club” at Bristol Community College in Fall River, MA have been building drifters from the kits recently. The kits are still supplied by the Southern Maine Community College.



Documenting your deployments, groundings, and recoveries

Now that more than 30 labs are involved with deploying these drifters, we ask that you start documenting your deployments on the web. In this way, the information gets processed automatically in a standard format and  is entered directly into the database. Some of you have tried this in the last year or two and have worked out most of the bugs. Thank you. You can still call  (508-495-2211 or 508-566-4080) any time but, keep in mind, there are three steps to the documentation process that are linked from the main drifter site at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter as follows:

1. Go to the “planning your deployment” link and reserve your deployment id beforehand by entering the planned position and time of deployment. The website will return this 9-digit “deployment id” that depends on what you enter. You can then mark the body of your drifter before you deploy it if you like. Some users prefer to just mark the drifter with the 6 digit electronic serial number (ESN) of the transmitter but, in either case, you will need to conduct this first step in order to have your deployment properly processed and plotted. This also gives me a heads-up on your deployment plans.
2. After you put the drifter in water, you return to the drifter website to record the actual “deployment” information. You will need to start here with your “deployment IDs” that you got from step #1.
3. Finally, after you have recovered your instrument (or notice that it has grounded), you should return to the drifter website to record the “recovery” information. You are also asked a) to submit any photos and b) whether you want to “decommission” the unit at this time. If the unit is not decommissioned, the satellite company will continue to charge $2.35/mth for these units regardless of whether they are used or not. Keep in mind, however, that they charge us another $30/unit to recommission the units.

It is important that we follow through with these website forms so that the meta data associated with each deployment is properly logged (ie what type of drifter it is, whether it has a drogue, etc). We are trying to build a well-documented dataset that others can access and use in the future.

New Drifter Design Works

The 2by4-masted “Eddie” is now our standard surface drifter. It replaces the PVC-masted “Rachel” drifter, is less expensive, takes less time to make, puts less plastic in the ocean, exposes less to the wind, and has less hardware failures. Most users will agree it is far superior. One of the primary problems with the Rachel was the flotation failures at the end of the spars (the plastic buoy sticks were breaking).

Proposal Update

We had hoped to submit a full proposal to NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Grant call for k-12 education projects in earlier this year but our pre-proposal to partner with MATE, SMCC, GoMLF, and many New England-based marine educators was declined. We will look for other opportunities to follow-up on what we have been doing for years: engaging students in drifter designing. building, and tracking. The idea would be to have a series of workshops where marine science educators from local high schools, service providers, and students learn how to build drifters. Most of the drifters are deployed in offshore waters by fishermen. If you have any leads on new proposal opportunities where this would fit, please let us know.

Software updates

We are happy to report that nearly 100% of the drifter operation is powered by Python. Thanks to Xiuling Wu, a student from China, we have converted all the old Matlab code to this open source language and are ready to share the code with whoever is interested. We have assembled a package of “Python for Oceanographers” and will soon be ready to distribute it to our colleagues.


Two drifter-related events occurred in the past few months. A presentation was made at the National Marine Educators Conference in Boston and a workshop was held by the Marine Advanced Technology and Education (MATE) group in Monterey. Both introduced the drifter idea to more educators. We hope to promote more of these workshops in the future and look for funding that will supply schools with the basic kits.


Stockbridge High School Building Drifter

We hope to complete the drifter today. Our goal is to be the first team to launch a drifter into the Great Lakes. We will be launching October 1st and 2nd in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena Michigan and Lake Huron.

 The team has set up a facebook page that is updated daily with pictures, videos and announcements it can be found at:


Please friend us and follow the team.

Also the Jackson Citizen Patriot wrote a great article about the team it can be found on line at:



Drifter Newsletter #7

July 2010

New Drifter Designs

We have been experimenting with alternative designs this summer in an effort to further reduce the cost and time needed to build surface drifters. Several new prototypes were built and tested in local Woods Hole waters including the:

  1. Shawn Drifter” which has a 4 by 4 wooden mast and a flotation collar

  2. Miles Drifter” which has a 4 by 4 PVC fence-post mast filled with 2-part foam

  3. Eddie Drifter” which has a 2 by 4 wooden mast and a flotation collar

  4. Vitalii Drifter” which is a mini-rachel drifter that uses a Garmin instead of a TrackPack

eddie drifter
Figure 1. The new “Eddie” drifter with a wooden 2-by-4 mast and collar flotation.

The first three are slight variations of the standard “Rachel Drifter”. The Eddie model (see photo below) holds the most promise in replacing the Rachel as our standard surface drifter. While the first Eddie prototype failed after a few days, the 2nd has been reporting regularly for 3 weeks. Not only is this drifter a bit more environmentally friendly, it is much easier to make and should cost hundreds less. More info on these alternative models is posted with photos on the “drifter deign and technology” link on the drifter website http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter

Gulf of Mexico Drifter Deployments

A couple dozen drifters were shipped to various labs on the gulf coast including University of South Florida in St Petersburg, Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanogrphic and Metereoology Lab in Miami. They were also sent down on both the R/V ENDEAVOR and the R/V DELAWARE to be deployed at various locations around the gulf. The tracks of these drifters can be viewed at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/drift_BP_Spill.html . They are contributing to a multi-lab effort to understand the transport of the oil around the entire gulf as can be best seen at the USF site http://ocgweb.marine.usf.edu/~liu/drifter_all.html .

Proposal Plans

We hope to submit a planning letter to NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Grant call for k-12 education projects in early September. Partnering with MATE, SMCC, GoMLF, and many New England-based marine educators, we hope to follow-up on what we have been doing for years: engaging students in drifter designing. building, and tracking. The idea would be to have marine science students at local college visit local high schools to teach educators, service providers, and students how to build drifters. The drifters will be deployed in offshore waters by fishermen.

Highlights of 2010 Drifter Deployments

More than 200 of the SMCC/GoMLF/NOAA drifters have been deployed this year, more than any year prior. While many of them were short deployments of just a few days or weeks in estuarine/coastal waters, some have traveled offshore waters for months. The raw statistics as posted at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/statsd.html show many of them that have each logged thousands of kilometers.

One of the most interesting tracks is that of unit # 105440672 which has been retained in the enormous tides of Bay of Fundy for nearly 3 months and is still traveling. While it has traveled a total distance of over 5000 kilometers, it is still only a few hundred kilometers from where it was originally deployed.

New Drifter Users

Since the last drifter newsletter, the following institutions have recently joined the cooperative effort to deploy drifters (or plan to do so in the coming year):

  • UMASS Dartmouth Ocean Mixing Lab

  • Sea Education Association

  • URI Narragansett Bay Project

  • Upper Cape Cod Regional High School

  • Woods Hole Science and Technology Education Partnership

  • NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Overlaying drifter tracks on sea-surface temperature images

MATLAB code has been developed to better visualize the relationship between SST structure and the path of drifters. The set of routines does that following:

  • browses remotely stored images at Rutgers University,

  • saves “good” images,

  • interpolates in time between good images,

  • interpolates in space over cloudy images,

  • generates animations of the drifter tracks on color-contoured imagery.

Thanks to Emily Motz, a summer student from SUNY Maritime School who has spent her summer in Woods Hole with the “Partnerships in Education Program”, the code has produced these animation at, for example:


The next phase of this project will overlay circulation model vectors. We are also developing a Phython application for drifter processing and visualization which will not require a MATLAB license.

ComTechMobiles satellite fee

As noted previously, there are two ways to pay for satellite fee:

  1. one time bill through the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation
  2. monthly bills from ComTechMobile

Drifter users are asked to be aware of which option they are under and, in the case of option #2, be ready to respond.


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