Augmenting Capabilities of the RRS Sir David Attenborough through an Unmanned Surface Vehicle

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


Over the past 25 years, satellite observations have unequivocally demonstrated an accelerating flow of land-based ice into the oceans, now a major contributor to global sea level rise with severe implications for coastal communities worldwide, and knock-on implications for economic and social stability. In the next decade to century, our ability to predict sea level change is particularly limited by our lack of understanding of critical processes at the boundary between oceans and ice sheets.
This ice-ocean frontier is particularly challenging to characterize and investigate, as typical in situ observational techniques tend to be either limited in space to measurements in a few locations and in time, as sea-ice and a rapidly evolving glacial landscape precludes access over time periods exceeding a few days to weeks. The scarce available data indicates that concurrent observation of near-glacier ocean properties (heat and salt content, currents) and the associated evolution of the ice and seabed geometry is key to unlock the mysteries of ice-ocean interactions, and we need new tools to achieve such observations.

The UK's new polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough (SDA) is a state-of-the-art ice capable research vessel for making novel measurements in remote locations. Yet the near-glacier and shallow water zone remains a challenging area to sample safely. This project proposes to enhance the SDA's scientific capability into this zone, by capitalising on the advent of robotic surface vehicles. Our vision is to make the SDA the mothership to a high-performance, mid-endurance, commercially available unmanned surface vehicle. This vehicle will enable independent, near-simultaneous observation of water column properties and glacier/seabed geometry over the space of a few days, transported to the remote location by the SDA. The ability to sample these shallow (or deep), near-glacier areas at speed, safely and over prolonged timescales (up to a week), facilitates high-resolution studies, providing a unique and transformative observational capability.

The asset will also work as a force multiplier, effectively acting as a second ship to carry out routine underway observations in open waters, reducing the carbon footprint of data collection. The system will be capable of collecting several essential ocean variables relayed in near-real time via satellite to global databases, thereby contributing to Southern and Global Ocean Observing Systems (SOOS/GOOS). In turn, these observations will be used to constrain and improve global climate models and reduce uncertainties in climate projections.

Collaboration with NOC's Marine Autonomous Research Systems group will further integration of UK's state-of-the-art facilities, exchanging knowledge in marine and polar autonomous platforms, ensuring cross-pollination of ideas, testing of sensors in various environments, and furthering UK's stature in the ultra-competitive domain of robotic autonomy.


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