Science & Environment

Arctic crossing planned for ‘Boaty’ sub

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Media captionRussell Wynn: "Boaty will extend the Attenborough's reach"

The UK’s favourite new yellow submarine, Boaty McBoatface, is in training for a grand challenge.

Scientists plan to send the long-range autonomous vehicle under the sea-ice of the Arctic - from one side of the ocean basin to the other.

It is a journey of at least 2,500km - and while nuclear subs might routinely do it, the prospect is a daunting one for a battery-operated research vehicle.

The trip could happen in 2018 or 2019.

“It represents one of the last great transects on Earth for an autonomous sub,” said Prof Russell Wynn, from the National Oceanography Centre, Boaty's UK base.

“Previously, such subs have gone perhaps 150km (horizontally) under the ice and then come back out out again. Boaty will have the endurance to go all the way across the Arctic.”

Such a mission would give scientists rare insight into conditions that hold sway under the ice floes’ more persistent regions.

Image copyright BAS/NERC
Image caption Artwork: In time, Boaty will be launched from the RRS Sir David Attenborough
Image copyright ESA
Image caption To send Boaty across the entire Arctic basin would be a high-risk endeavour

The chubby underwater vehicle was formally introduced to the public on Monday at a keel-laying ceremony for Britain’s new £200m polar ship - the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

An online poll had called for the big research vessel to carry the humorous nickname, but the government thought better of it, reserving the name Boaty for one of the Attenborough’s robots instead.

The polar ship will not be on the water until 2018, and so the yellow sub is going to have to wait to get onboard.

In the meantime, it will engage in some solo work having successfully completed a series of advanced sea trials.

Image copyright NOC/NERC

This coming Antarctic research season, Boaty will be deep diving in the Southern Ocean to study how bottom currents move.

Early next year it will be in the North Sea gathering data to assist scientists as they try to understand how and where carbon dioxide could be buried offshore.

Prof Wynn, who heads NOC’s Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (Mars) section, has high hopes for Boaty.

It represents, he says, something of a step-change in capability.

Qualified to reach a depth of 6,000m, the sub can operate for extended periods without any intervention from humans.

“I like to think of Boaty as the marathon-running equivalent of our other underwater vehicles in that it goes deeper, longer but slower. So we have other yellow submarines that go for a couple of days before we have to recover them and recharge the batteries. But the idea with Boaty is that it can operate for months, working in the deepest parts of the ocean.”

Image copyright NOC/NERC
Image caption Stand by for the adventures of Boaty, the plucky sub that takes on the toughest jobs in polar science

The research possibilities are myriad. Sensors can track changes in water temperature, in salinity and density, and in the amount of oxygen that is present. Other instruments will image zooplankton and fish shoals in the water column. Still more equipment will listen for marine mammals like whales and dolphins.

A must-have for Boaty is smart navigation. Working under ice, for example, prevents it getting a GPS fix by rising to the surface. The use of a compass is also problematic in polar regions.

“One of the things we’re going to do is teach Boaty to read a map,” said Prof Wynn. “You give it a map of the seabed in its brain and then as it travels it uses sonar to collect data that it can compare with the stored map. This should tell it where it is. It’s a neat concept but it’s never been tested over thousands of km before.”

Image caption Science minister Jo Johnson sees an opportunity in the publicity stemming from Boaty's name

The sub and its “mothership”, the Attenborough, will have a £1m education programme put behind them.

The Natural Environment Research Council, which runs most polar science in the UK, is keen to exploit the popular interest generated around the naming vote.

Schools will be able to apply for education packs centred on ocean and polar topics. And STEM ambassadors will also be working with children to bring these subjects alive.

“With Boaty and the RRS Sir David Attenborough as integral resources, the Polar Explorer Programme will use videos and images and updates from missions to achieve a real change in the aspirations and attainment of many young people in STEM subjects,” science minister Jo Johnson told the keel-laying ceremony at Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead.

“We want to inspire children to be confident in their skills, curious about their world and bold in their ambitions. But we also want to inspire people of all ages around the world to recognise the wonder and importance of our frozen planet.”

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Media captionScience reporter Victoria Gill was at the Attenborough keel-laying ceremony

Boaty is the latest in a long line of robots that have had the anthropomorphism treatment. But be warned if you plan to get attached to this particular plucky sub.

“We do occasionally lose our vehicles, and they can get caught in fishing nets from time to time,” cautioned Prof Wynn.

“There could well be some dramas ahead for those people who plan to follow Boaty on his missions.

“But this is what we do. These vehicles are like the Mars rovers of the oceans which we send out into hostile places to get their data that they then send back to us via satellite. And, yes, we are quite likely to have some highs and some lows.” and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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