Low-cost Drift Buoy Plies the Atlantic for Nearly a Year

Put a message in a bottle and toss it in the ocean, and if you’re very lucky, years later you might get a response. Drop a floating Arduino-fied buoy into the ocean and if you’ve engineered it well, it may send data back to you for even longer.

At least that’s what [Wayne] has learned since his MDBuoyProject went live with the launching of a DIY drift buoy last year. The BOM for the buoy reads like a page from the Adafruit website: Arduino Trinket, an RTC, GPS module, Iridium satellite modem, sensors, and a solar panel. Everything lives in a clear plastic dry box along with a can of desiccant and a LiPo battery.

The solar panel has a view through the case lid, and the buoy is kept upright by a long PVC boom on the bottom of the case. Two versions have been built and launched so far; alas, the Pacific buoy was lost shortly after it was launched. But the Atlantic buoy picked up the Gulf Stream and has been drifting slowly toward Europe since last summer, sending back telemetry. A future version aims to incorporate an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, presumably to report the signals of AIS transponders on nearby ships as they pass.

We like the attention to detail as well as the low cost of this build. It’s a project that’s well within reach of a STEM program, akin to the many high-altitude DIY balloon projects we’ve featured before.

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Tracking ships using software-defined radio (SDR)


When we first started hearing about software-defined radio hacks (which often use USB dongles that ring it at under $20) we didn’t fully grasp the scope of that flexibility. But now we’ve seen several real-life examples that drive the concept home. For instance, did you know that SDR can be used to track ships? Ships large and small are required by may countries to use an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder. The protocol was originally developed to prevent collisions on large ships, but when the cost of the hardware became affordable the system was also brought to smaller vessels.

[Carl] wrote in to share his project (which is linked above). Just like the police scanner project from April this makes use of RTL-SDR in the form of a TV tuner dongle. He uses the SDRSharp software along with a Yagi-UDA. The captured data is then decoded and plotted on a map using ShipPlotter.