Drifter Resources

Student-built, fishermen-deployed, satellite-tracked “drifters” provide a low-cost means to monitor currents off the New England coast and beyond. These instruments are constructed according to oceanographic standards to move with the current and report their positions on a regular basis. One of the primary motivations for drifter deployments is to help validate circulation models.

Why drifters?  Over the past decade, funding has increased in support of using surface drifters for environmental monitoring that far exceeds the study of surface currents and circulation.  Research using drifters has included investigations into plankton dispersal, movement of harmful algal blooms, oil spills, and tidal power assessments.

Drifters are equipped with a beacon that transmits its location to an end-user via satellite, although other environmental sensors may be attached.  Teachers work with a local boater or fisherman to have the drifter deployed offshore and to retrieve the drifter. Shore-based deployments may also be possible. 

Building Manuals

Lesson Plans





Standards Addressed


Building Manuals

Construction Manuals for Surface Drifter

Lesson Plans

Latitude and Longitude: Tracking Your Drifter with Real-time Data, Grades 5-8 Lesson Plan, 2014

Where Did the Rubber Bath Toys Go?, Grades K-8, Sea Grant Alaska

Weather and Circulation Systems, Grades K-8, Sea Grant Alaska

Waves and Tides, Grades K-8, Sea Grant Alaska

Temperature and Salinity Effects on Deep Ocean Currents, Grades K-8, Sea Grant Alaska

Global Ocean Conveyor Belt, Grades K-8, Sea Grant Alaska

"Ducks in the Flow" Lesson Plans: Going with the Flow and The Ocean in Motion, Grades 3-5, 2008, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Investigating Earth's Hydrosphere: Ocean Currents and Salinity, Grades 5-12, Polar Trec

Ocean Conveyor Belt, Grades 8-12, C MORE Science Kits

Ocean Currents and Drifters, Grades 9-12 Lesson Plan, 2014

Motion in the Ocean: What Causes Waves and Ocean Currents?, Grades 9-12

Read Set Drift!: Coastal Currents and Navigation, Grades 9-12

Climate Change and Currents, Grades 9-12

The Coriolis Effect, Grades 9-12

Ups and Downs: What Causes Tides?, Grades 9-12

Climate Change and Tides, Grades 9-12

The Science Behind Global Positioning, Grades 9-12

I Know Where You Are: An Introduction to Global Positioning, Grades 9-12

Programming Lesson Plan, Undergraduate, 2015

Currents and Drifters Lab, Elements of Oceanography (OCEA-105) 2012, Dr. Charles Gregory


Adroitly Adrift, by Ari Daniel- http://coseenow.net/podcast/2010/02/drifter/     February 2010

Script: http://coseenow.net/podcast/files/2010/02/og28script.pdf


NASA Perpetual Ocean

Bob the Drifter

Students Launch Ocean Drifter, Nautilus Live, 2014


Ocean Commotion: Caught in the Currents by Janeen Mason

The Mysterious Ocean Highway: Benjamin Franklin and the Gulf Stream by Deborah Heiligman

Ocean Currents: Marine Science Activities for Grades 5-8 by Catherine Halversen, Kevin Beals, Craig Strang

Physical Oceanography Second Edition by Brent A. Ford and P. Sean Smith

Tracking Trash: Floatsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns

Physical Oceanography Revised Second Edition by Alfredo L. Aretxabaleta, Gregg R. Brooks, and Nancy W. West


Key Concepts:

  • Drifting buoys are part of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS).
  • Drifting buoys collect data on sea surface temperature, sea level pressure, and ocean surface current patterns.
  • Knowledge of the ocean surface currents can be used to predict the track of a buoy.
  • Drifting buoys transmit data to satellites, which send them to data collection centers where they can be accessed online.


Potential Focus Questions:

  • How are ocean surface currents formed?
  • What are some of the ocean surface currents and where do they flow?
  • What kinds of data can drifting buoys collect?
  • How can we predict the track of a drifting buoy?
  • How can the data from drifting buoys be used?

Standards addressed

National Science Education Standards Grade 5 to 8

National Science Education Standards Grade 9 to 12

Ocean Literacy Principles Addressed (Grades K-12):

  • Principle 1: The Earth has one big ocean with many features.
    • Fundamental Concept: c
  • Principle 7: The Ocean is largely unexplored.
    • Fundamental Concepts: b, d, e, f

Atmospheric Science Literacy Principles Addressed:

  • Essential Principle 5: Earth’s atmosphere continuously interacts with the other components of the Earth System.

Climate Literacy Principles Addressed:

  • Essential Principle 2: Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth System.
    • Fundamental Concepts: A, B
  • Essential Principle 5: Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.
    • Fundamental Concept: B

State Science Standard(s) Addressed:

  • Will differ depending on your state