The Robot Journalist Travelling the High Seas

08.05.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo on Visual Hunt
Photo on Visual Hunt

A fleet of 23-foot-long drones, equipped with 15 different sensors, is circling the world’s seas and transmitting minute-by-minute weather forecasts to companies and news organisations.

Journalists are infamous for diving into physically challenging situations in the pursuit of a good story. So it may come as no surprise to hear that a team of star reporters at Yahoo News have thrown themselves into the pummelling word of open ocean storms, traversing 60+ knot gusts and massive breaking waves to provide readers with essential information each week.

What’s special about the crack team of reporters, however, is that they’re a series of 23-foot-long drones.

Created by Bay Area startup Saildrone, the robots use wind and solar-powered systems to crisscross the planet and relay minute-by-minute atmospheric and oceanographic data back to the land. The drones are fitted with 15 different sensors to measure changes in wind, humidity, solar radiation and temperature.

The company says that as most of the weather people experience begins at sea, which covers 70% of the earth, its systems are much more effective than traditional weather data, which is usually collected on land.

Media company Yahoo News uses Saildrone to automatically write weekly city-level weather stories in the US. Recent stories, organised into a set three-paragraph structure and published after review by an editor, have covered forecasts of intense rain in San Antonio and clear skies in Portland.

The innovation is the latest in a line of developments in robot-written journalism. Earlier in 2019, newspaper Guardian Australia published its first news story written by ReporterMate, an automated system that turns a template and a dataset into a news story. Similarly, China unveiled the world’s first artificial intelligence news anchor in late 2018, who will be able to report news all day every day without tiring.

While some journalists have cried out about the risks that automation poses to their livelihood, others have said the freedom from spending time writing formulaic stories in an environment of increased pressure and constant staff cuts is an act of professional liberation.

Either way, it’s probably not the fault of Saildrone, which is also busy doing other things – like using ‘echo sounders’ to find out whether the climate crisis has destroyed schools of eels on the ocean floor.

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