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Friendly Floatees (wikipedia.org)
216 points by Tomte 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

Not only is this super interesting but it is also an example of something negative becoming useful with the application of some creativity. A spill of toys or nike sneakers would normally not be something to celebrate of course, but in this case it revealed information about ocean currents and deepened our understanding. Normally we see this type of effect in medical cases where someone has suffered an accident or has a genetic defect which, while terrible for that person, can still be used to learn something with is either hard or unethical to reproduce in experimentation. For me the Floatees are a reminder that we should work to avoid medical, ecological, societal, etc. disasters but once they have happened there is a silver lining of learning we can gain with the right mindset.

Also see



Blindsight is an amazing phenomenon with its implications for intelligence without consciousness and a great book by the same name.

> One monkey in particular, Helen, [...] was a macaque monkey that had been decorticated; specifically, her primary visual cortex (V1) was completely removed, blinding her.

Wow, go humans. But I guess this is nothing in comparison with what the commercial farming industry gets up to :(

Yeah, if that got a squick reaction then don't go looking up too much animal-based research. We do all sorts of ugly things to animals in the name of science. :/ But we learn all sorts of interesting and useful things from it, so... it's one of those trolley problem things.

Oh cool, I have a 1997 edition of the first children's book inspired by this (Ducky, written by Eve Bunting). Wikipedia didn't know about it so I just updated the page, giving her the due credit as the first author to publish on this. Thanks, HN!

reminds me of the beaches where you can find lego pirate accessories. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28367198

You can play with simulations based on this data at http://adrift.org.au

Shouldn’t something like this be relatively simple to do with some kind of system with mobile connectivity & GPS housed in some kind of floatable shell?

It wouldn’t have to be powered on for the whole journey (to preserve power) as long as it pings back it’s location from time to time.

And since it’s location is known it should be possible to recover every unit so as not to pollute the oceans with them.

Shouldn’t cost more than $200 per unit, I’d even tend to say that it’s doable for around $100.

This would have the benefit that you can plot the exact course each unit has taken (in real time). And for where there’s no mobile connectivity just save the location locally and push it once connection is regained.

"Relatively simple" is probably relative.

As others note keeping the electronics alive is going to be hard enough, but the "ping back" is probably the hardest bit.

There is no such thing as mobile connectivity in the middle of the ocean, because there are no cell towers, so your only bet is to use satellite hookups.

Satellite connectivity for things like this is pretty good today, with providers like Iridium providing low bandwidth ping services like their Iridium Short Burst Data Service.

You would use something like the Iridium 9603[0] which idles at 34mA and uses 0.8W to send a message.

That is to say it's all definitely doable, but probably not that simple and much much easier to do today then even 10 years ago.

[0] https://www.iridium.com/products/iridium-9603-3/

I would think that one hybrid option would be for the balls to enter into a low-power mode when out of cell signal range and simply store their coordinates once ever five minutes. Then when it washes upon the virtual shore, it connects and uploads its track.

What percentage of the coast lines around the world are covered by cell towers, I wonder?

It would be an improvement over having to find them manually, but if you've gone to the effort to engineer an electronics package capable of connecting to a cell tower after years at sea you can probably get it to ping a satellite regularly "for free".

Concerning the Iridium emitter, of course you wouldn't let it idle at 34mA. It would need to be shut down with a mosfet like and only be turned on when needed (twice a week for example)

I agree completely, you'd work out what kind of power budget you have (maybe even monitor it if you are using solar) and phone home as regularly as reasonable.

I just read a book on atmospheric remote sensing which had discussion throughout on balloon-based sondes, which are the atmospheric counterpart of ocean drifters.

In the early days of remote sensing, it was thought that these sondes, which are neutrally buoyant and can stay aloft for months, could provide enough data to constrain weather models, especially in the southern hemisphere. And then satellite data with all its calibration problems would not be needed.

It turned out that the sondes tended to drift into certain regions and cluster there, leaving large areas without data. Of course, sondes still play a key role (as do the ocean drifters), but the strategy of just using natural drift to gather data everywhere didn't work.

It’s hard to keep electronics going in the ocean but there is a company called Saildrone that is doing sort of what you are saying. https://www.saildrone.com

As many have said, once you introduce sea water and its accompanying corrosion, along with biofouling, “relatively simple” things become a lot more challenging.

Not to say there haven’t been massively successful drifter studies conducted by oceanographers, though the per unit cost is well more than $200. One of the largest fleets is the Argo[1] float system, with nearly 4000 floats in operation in the world ocean.

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argo_(oceanography)

Interestingly there are a number of US companies funded under the DARPA Ocean of things program to do just this, and then some. For a company to accomplish such a task the cost is greater but still less than $1k per unit. Everybody wants to put more than just A GPS out there. For one reason, we already understand mesoscale ocean currents well enough that they are not interesting on their own. Also the per buoy cost is high enough that hey, let's just add one more...

It would take a lot of fuel to recover individual probes scattered across the ocean, causing a different kind of pollution.

This seems like a nice example of chaotic system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory).

Any kind of atmospheric studies (or studies of currents) would indeed be an archetypal example of a chaotic system -- although much simpler dynamical systems would exhibit chaotic behaviors.

Wow, I've been 10 Rubber Ducks to my daughter for weeks and had no idea it was inspired by a real event.

What I would give to see their journey graphically represented!

I can make it happen. What would you give?

Polluting, for science!

I know you jest, but it's not like the scientists pushed the container overboard.

So - using disasters to discover new things, for science!

My favorite example of that is still the discovery of radiotrophic fungi[1] in Chernobyl.

It's just so cool to find out about species that feed on radiation. Too bad it takes a local-nuclear-apocalypse level of disaster for that to have happened.


When all planes were grounded after 9/11, scientists collected some really interesting data on how airplane contrails effect the weather. (It's more than you'd expect.) https://globalnews.ca/news/2934513/empty-skies-after-911-set...

Huh. "9/11 proves that global warming caused by vapor trails" sounds absolutely nutty, but apparently is rather accurate.

This is offtopic, but can you please post that article with this title to /r/nottheonion? "Contrails" instead of "vapor trails" might make it even better, but it's damn near perfect as is.

That's actually a good idea.

Edit: Sadly they only allow recent news.

Also, they only allow the original headlines.

Re: edit: :(

Cant they use this data to find MH370?

These data are about low-altitude wind and surface ocean currents. Models based on those things are part of the toolkit being used as a matter of course in such searches, but unless MH370 spent months floating at the surface of the ocean, these models can't find it per se, though they can offer indirect hints.

Models of surface wind and currents were used to both predict, and trace back the possible origins of flotsam and debris from the crash that washed ashore[0][1] around the rim of the Indian Ocean in the following months and years.

As a side note, the Friendly Floatees event occurred in the Pacific, with drift around the Pacific, Arctic, and far north Atlantic oceans. MH370 was lost over the Indian Ocean.

[0] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/world/australia/malaysia-...

[1] Part of my sources include personal knowledge, as I lived in Canberra and knew employees at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau during the early months of the search.

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