History of the Drifter Program

The concept of Student Drifters was established in 2004 as a research-based program by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. As originally conceived, the program’s primary objectives were to engineer and deploy low-cost, hand-built, ocean drifters. These units are used to track currents via satellite telemetry. The data collected contributes to NOAAs Integrated Ocean Observing System and validates numerical models.

Applications funded to date include:

  • Lobster larvae advection
  • Harmful Algal Bloom advection
  • Zooplankton (whale food) advection
  • Educational demonstrations
  • Invasive crab dispersal
  • Transient eddy formations
  • Fish larvae (salmon,cod) advection
  • Power plant effluent dispersal
  • Clam acidification

The drifter program stemmed from the fourth phase of the Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps project (see Manning and Pelletier, 2009 and emolt.org). Funded parties including the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, the Southern Maine Community College (SMCC), and NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center were interested in tracking the potential transport of early-staged larvae along the coast of Maine. In subsequent years, we were primarily funded by McGillicuddy et al in another NOAA funded project (GOMTOX) to track the advection of HABs (Manning et al, 2009). Another big boost to the project occurred in the summer of August 2009 when we hosted a NSF-funded workshop to teach a few dozen educators from around the country (from the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) consortium).

In recent years, the drifter program has broadened its scope and invited local schools and educators to become involved in drifter building, deployment, and tracking. The drifters have proven to be a very successful educational tool in high school science or STEM classes, after-school programs, summer science schools, and informal educational settings. In the past few decades, more than 1500 drifters have been built and deployed by approximately 100 different schools.

In 2022, with Jim Manning’s retirement, the project site moved away NOAA.  While Jim is still involved, Dr. Kristin Burkholder, an oceanographer from Stonehill College, has joined the team.

History of Drifter Designs

Name Years # Deployed Feature Fault
Heather 2003 ~100 flags no gps
Rachel 2004-2010 ~500 2″ PVC plastic
Paul 2006-2013 ~50 ½ size non-compliant
Graham & Kara 2004-2011 ~100 drogued expensive, no loss-detector
Eddie 2010-2013 ~200 wood & collar vinyl sails& fiberglass spars
Miles 2010 4 4″ PVC foam-filled fence post more plastic
Sean 2010-2014 44 4×4 woodmast bulky
Steve 2012 4 garden stakes & stays labor
Dan 2012 6 broom handle mast extension weak extension
Brandy 2012 1 Milk jug flotation internittent
Massasoit 2013 1 ski pole mast extension none
Cassie 2013-2014 22 eco-friendly Bamboo mast & spars inconsistent & hard to find parts
Colin 2013-2014 8 Pop-up leaf bag drogue uncertain of drogues survival
Irina 2013-Present 35 Aluminum mast & spars variable results depending on details of rigging
Megan 2014 1 floatie buoyancy and 12mm driveway-marker fiberglass spars testing

Thanks to all the students, teachers, and mariners who have helped with the design changes over the years.