Spotlight: Touring the Buoy Barn

Standing in a cavernous building dubbed the “buoy barn,” Stacy Knapp gestured to five huge looming yellow buoys, all undergoing some kind of maintenance or alteration. Pictures of these buoys, bobbing against the backdrop of a vast ocean, don’t do them justice. They stand more than twice as high as I do and their bases are as wide as most people are tall. In a word, they are overwhelming. Not what you would expect to find in a barn of any kind. Even more impressive are the advanced tools and sensors they carry.

Electronics Engineer Patrick Fikes points out the many sensors he installs and services on the Physical Oceanography Group’s buoys.

Electronics Engineer Patrick Fikes points out the many sensors he
installs and services on the Physical Oceanography Group’s buoys.

It is difficult to imagine moving something so large more than an inch, let alone outside of the buoy barn, but many of these behemoths have seen more of the world than I have. PhOG has designed, built, and maintained moored buoys to collect real-time information not just in the Gulf of Maine, but in oceans around the world, for over 15 years. In 2001, PhOG buoys were deployed as part of the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMOOS), now with the national network supported by the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS).

 

In June, the University of Maine’s Physical Oceanography Group (PhOG) deployed a buoy off the coast of Monhegan Island. The buoy is anchored near the Maine state-appointed UMaine deepwater offshore wind turbine test site, where the first small scale turbine will be located, to measure trends in atmospheric and oceanographic conditions: wind, waves, and weather. The data will be compared with regional records from the past decade from nearby moorings and coastal stations.

“Our job is to observe and record the environmental and oceanic conditions in the area both before and while the turbine is deployed,” said Knapp, a physical oceanography graduate student. Once in the ocean, the massive buoy will provide valuable real-time information that can guide turbine platform design decisions back at the University of Maine.

To a first time visitor in the buoy barn, the buoys all look the same: enormous. An expert like Patrick Fikes can identify the differences in sensors and function.

To a first time visitor in the buoy barn, the buoys all look the same: enormous.
An expert like Patrick Fikes can identify the differences in sensors and function.

Patrick Fikes, an electronics engineer with PhOG, introduced me to each component of the buoy’s data collection equipment including wind and wave sensors and a variety of communications technology for transmitting data back to shore. Many of the tubes, boxes, panels and propellers look like they belong in a space ship in a science fiction movie, not being tossed and rocked in the deep water of the gulf.

Basic Diagram of a PhOG Buoy

The buoy’s cellular and satellite communication systems transmit GPS coordinates in real-time.
It also carries two types of wind sensors, one a mechanical anemometer and the other a sonic
sensor. Sensors located at the surface and on the mooring line measure temperature, salinity,
current strength and direction.  Four photovoltaic (solar) panels charge the buoy’s batteries.

Fikes and Knapp were proud of every giant looming over our heads. They are the result of years of research and engineering. PhOG has had to adapt its buoys for the Gulf of Maine, equipping them to handle up to 2,000 lbs of ice that accumulates from freezing spray and winter storms that create waves nearly 30 ft high. Engineers at AEWC will have to consider the same harsh ocean elements as they design floating offshore wind turbine platforms.

All of the data collected by the DeepCwind Consortium buoy will be compiled and analyzed by researchers at PhOG in order to predict future atmospheric and oceanographic conditions. These findings will help AEWC engineers to anticipate the coastal ocean conditions their offshore wind turbine structures will face and account for them in their designs. PhOG’s research will ensure that the DeepCwind Consortium deepwater offshore wind turbines and the currents of Maine’s gulf waters function in harmony.