The Research Vessel Remains Irreplaceable in Ocean Observing

Ocean observations are critical in shaping our understanding of the ocean’s role as a climate driver, economic engine, and natural resource. While research vessel expeditions have been a mainstay in collecting ocean observations since HMS Challenger, every ship has the same limitations—it’s a single slow-moving speck taking tiny snapshots of an expansive, ever-changing ocean. They bring home pixels rather than the whole picture.

Modern research vessels, despite upgrading from lead lines and mercury thermometers to multibeam echosounders and CTDs, still face the same constraints as Challenger. They’re highly resource-intensive and not suited for broad-scale or continuous data collection. As a platform, they can’t offer a comprehensive view of the ocean. However, no single platform can—its vastness, opaque depth, and harsh dynamism requires a suite of modern tools.

Two such modern tools to emerge in the past fifty years, remote-sensing satellites and autonomous vessels, have revolutionized ocean observation. NASA’s first oceanographic satellite, Seasat, was launched in 1978. Operational for only 98 days, it collected as much data as all the ships over the previous century. While satellites make continuous global ocean coverage possible, they typically can’t ‘see’ beyond the first few meters of surface water. Meanwhile, the recent proliferation of autonomous vehicles has increased the convenience of collecting at-sea observations. Rather than dispatching a fully-outfitted vessel, one of these inexpensive and largely self-sufficient vehicles (or an entire fleet) can be deployed for surface or sub-sea data collection—and in more hazardous conditions.

Yet research vessels remain irreplaceable by providing deep and diverse direct ocean observations with a hands-on scientific presence. Their strengths mesh powerfully with remote-sensing satellites and autonomous vehicles. The true utility of the modern ocean observation network is in various platforms’ ability to complement and amplify each other. Founded in 2009 to boldly explore the unknown ocean, the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI), with its previous research vessel Falkor and successor Falkor (too), boosts ocean exploration and ocean observation by blending the capabilities of their vessels with these revolutionary technologies.

In 2017, SOI welcomed a team of NASA scientists on board Falkor for the ‘Sea to Space Particle Investigation’. Satellite sensors require constant development, calibration, and in-situ validation to be effective observation and measurement tools. This expedition was part of a series of studies to develop one of the world’s most advanced ocean observation satellites. Launching in 2024, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite will utilize NASA’s most sophisticated ocean color sensor to assess ocean health and provide unprecedented insight into Earth’s changing marine ecosystems.

The autonomous vehicles - aerial and underwater - utilized by the Ocean Robots Team line the aft deck of R/V Falkor.

The AUVs and UAVs used in the 'Exploring Fronts' expeditions line on the deck of R/V Falkor. (Image credit: Leighton Rolley / Schmidt Ocean Institute)

A key component of PACE is its ability to identify phytoplankton community composition— recognizing the mix of microscopic organisms in the water column by measuring ocean color from orbit. To accomplish this, scientists need to build relationships between the sensor data on the satellite and datasets collected at sea. This requires sampling, measuring, and making connections between phytoplankton and ocean color—a month’s worth of science aboard Falkor.

Steaming across the Pacific, the team collected biological, chemical, and optical measurements of the ocean—refining their instruments and processes while gaining new insights into ocean ecology. Through this research, they learned about phytoplankton abundance and composition, increasing their understanding of Pacific ecosystems, and informing the ocean color algorithms that will allow PACE to fulfill its capabilities. Once in orbit, it will allow scientists to answer questions like, “What does an almost imperceptible shift from cerulean toward azure waters off the coast of Mexico signal about its ocean ecology?” Data the satellite captures will expand our understanding of the ocean—but its foundation was built by scientists studying microscopic phytoplankton on a ship at sea.

During the ‘Sea to Space Particle Investigation’, Falkor operated much like Challenger—as a floating laboratory carrying scientists to the open ocean. Another expedition in 2018, ‘Exploring Fronts with Multiple Robots’, envisioned a potential future for the research vessel—as the center of a sprawling technological organism.

Ocean fronts are complex collisions of distinct water masses with sharp differences in temperature, density, or salinity. They support the aquatic food chain and enhance carbon export to the deep ocean—an important and poorly understood global climate mechanism. Often difficult to observe via satellite, fronts are an excellent target for an at-sea expedition. This expedition studied the North Pacific Subtropical Front located one thousand miles off the coast of southern California. It had two goals: characterize the ocean front and demonstrate the effectiveness of coordinating multiple autonomous vehicles around a single capable vessel.


Melissa Omand, Colleen Durkin, Philipp Guenther, and Ben Knorlein deploy an instrument in the 'Sea to Space' expedition. (Image credit: Mónika Naranjo-Shepherd / Schmidt Ocean Institute)

At the Front, Falkor served as the nerve center for a fleet of vehicles—seven autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and three fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It’s simple math: every robotic vessel gliding through the ocean or soaring overhead multiplied the expedition’s ability to characterize the Front. From the control room on board, the research team used the vehicles as restless nodes in a data-capturing network—like bees circling Falkor’s hive. This greatly expanded reach came at minimal cost. With advanced communications and visualization systems, the non-stop simultaneous operation of multiple vehicles could often be handled by a single person in the Control Room.

Using these synchronization technologies, the team continually refined deployments and identified new targets to explore during operations—allowing them to study the North Pacific Subtropical Front in unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution. Their work paves the way for future study of ocean fronts’ roles in fisheries and climate, while demonstrating a powerful and scalable model for linking low-cost autonomous vehicles with research vessels.

Each of these platforms has strengths and weaknesses. Remote sensing satellites relentlessly collect massive swaths of data (limited primarily to the sea surface) while requiring direct ocean research for calibration and validation. Autonomous vessels can sample in perilous areas and are an inexpensive alternative to larger vessels but can’t replicate their sophisticated sensor packages and operational flexibility. Research vessels, despite their spatial limitations, are a perfect platform for developing and deploying these evolving ocean observation technologies. Part laboratory and part workshop, research vessels are a human hub in the ocean, embodying the ambition, innovation, and intrepid spirit of ocean science.

To learn more about Schmidt Ocean Institute's new research vessel Falkor (too), visit: https://schmidtocean.org/

This feature appeared in Environment, Coastal & Offshore (ECO) Magazine's 2023 Deep Dive I special edition Ocean Observation, to read more access the magazine here.

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