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We know more about the universe than we do about the oceans, so it is no surprise that researchers are looking for new ways to understand the ocean’s little known microlayer. The sea surface microlayer (SML) is the top 1 millimeter of the ocean surface. This extremely thin boundary layer is where all gas exchange occurs between the atmosphere and the ocean. The processes that control carbon dioxide transport and transformation in oceans remain largely unknown. To better understand the overall health of the ocean, scientists need to be able to model the transfer of gases between the atmosphere and the ocean in order to create regional and global budgets of carbon, nutrients and pollutants.

When waves break on the surface of the ocean, mixing occurs, allowing gas from the atmosphere to enter the water and water from the ocean to enter the atmosphere. Scientists know a lot about mixing at wind speeds between 6 and 30 knots, however, there is still much to discover at lower speeds. The SML is an oily film which is more prevalent when the water is calm. In flat water conditions it is fair to suspect that the microlayer suppresses waves and decreases mixing. This is exactly why the science team on the R/V Falkor has sought out the flat water work conditions off the coast of Darwin, Australia.

One reason so little is known about the SML is that the mere presence of the boat disturbs the microlayer, making it nearly impossible to get accurate, untainted data. Not only do the research vessels need to get way out into the ocean to find the flat water conditions, the research equipment needs to get away from the boat to get undisturbed Microlayer data.

So, how does a researcher collect ample undisturbed SML data and not blow the budget

Enter Latitude and the HQ-60


Utilizing HQ’s real-world-tested VTOL capabilities gleaned from our thousand+ flight hours and our work with NOAA and the R/V Oscar Elton Sette off of the coast of Hawaii. We knew we could vertically take off and land from the small footprint of the R/V Falkor. Furthermore, we could program a specific flight pattern and elevation into the unmanned system and know that it could not only finish it but the pattern could be replicated again and again.

A maximum payload capacity of 20 lbs. would put the researcher’s skills to the test, with efficient packaging and minimum weight being of the utmost importance. Three years of effort culminated in a custom design which was painstakingly tucked into the HQ-60’s payload bay.

Hyperspectral cameras installed in the HQ60 record the different colors of the water in high wavelength resolution. By correlating the colors picked up by the cameras with the chemical and biological composition of the samples, the team can link these oceanic processes with the color spectrum of seawater. This information will be used to calibrate satellite observations of ocean color and connect them to specific biochemical processes. With the HQ-60, we can map a vast area of the ocean without disturbing it for very little cost, at an unprecedented speed/rate/efficiency.

During operations, the HQ-60 is prepped for flight and launched from a 40 ft. by 40 ft. area using its VTOL system. After autonomously transitioning to forward flight, the aircraft remains in the local area of the ship to confirm that all systems are functional. Upon completion of the system check, the aircraft is sent up to 6 miles away from the ship to take readings of the SML over undisturbed water. When data collection is complete – typically 3 hours later – the aircraft is returned to the area local to the ship. After a final system check, the aircraft is commanded to land and autonomously transitions to vertical flight, landing back on the deck of the Falkor.

Due to its design the HQ-60 provides a compact, reliable solution for a variety of missions in its payload and endurance class. In this case, a remote mission with a limited launch and recovery area.

For more information please visit Schmidt Ocean Institute