The design and testing of small, low-cost GPS-tracked surface drifters

Jay Austin, Sten Atkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


We have designed and constructed drifters appropriate for use in regions characterized by limited horizontal extent. The drifters follow the upper 30 cm of surface currents, but can be modified to follow water at any depth. The drifters store their latitude and longitude internally, and transmit their current latitude and longitude to a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS)-radio receiver, making their location and subsequent retrieval straightforward. A field test of six drifters in Hog Island Bay, Virginia, United States, in August 2003 was successful and led to several design improvements. With simple construction and a total materials cost of under U.S.$200, this design will make drifters an accessible part of interdisciplinary experiments, provide a potentially valuable educational tool, and make experiments that require large numbers of drifters more cost-effective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1026-1029
Number of pages4
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank Chris Powell for his advice regarding the construction of the drifters and Dan Stilwell, Iris Anderson, and the staff of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Eastern Shore Laboratory, especially Gretchen Arnold, for support during the field test. We appreciate the comments of two anonymous reviewers. Funding for J. A. Austin and the construction of drifters was provided by Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University. S. Atkinson was funded through the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, OCE-0244035.


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