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3 July 2017

Boaty McBoatface Returns from Maiden Voyage in Arctic Waters

Boaty McBoatface is undeniably the most widely-known and popular autonomous vehicle in the world, though this would likely not have been the case if it weren’t for the circumstances that surrounded the naming of the vessel. You may recall that back in March of 2016, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched a heavily-flawed online campaign centred on the naming of the latest addition to their fleet of polar research ships. While the vessel was eventually given the title of RRS Sir David Attenborough, the internet had already chosen its clear favourite in Boaty McBoatface. The hashtag quickly began to trend worldwide, and the NERC eventually conceded and bestowed the name upon one of the National Oceanography Centre’s Autosub Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs).

One year later in March of 2017 we reported on the ongoing preparations being made ahead of Boaty’s maiden voyage to the bitter waters of the Arctic. The vessel headed out on board the BAS research ship RRS James Ross Clark on the 17th of March with the goal of studying the coldest abyssal ocean waters on Earth, officially known as Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW).

We can now confirm that the voyage has been a success, with Boaty having returned to the UK at the end of June following an extensive research programme in which the vessel collected data on the temperature, speed of water flow, and underwater turbulence rates at the Orkney Passage. The Orkney Passage, a region of the Southern Ocean roughly 500 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula and approximately 4,000 deep, was selected due to its status as a key chokepoint along the path taken by AABW en route to the Atlantic Ocean.

The data gathered over the course of the expedition has been translated into an animated fly-through of the Orkney Passage (see below) in order to allow the team to better visualise the information in relation to the region’s complex terrain. This animation will be utilised during analysis of said data as the team attempt to gain an understanding of ocean mixing processes and their resulting effect on climate change.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson commented on Boaty’s return, “Fresh from its maiden voyage, Boaty is already delivering new insight into some of the coldest ocean waters on earth, giving scientists a greater understanding of changes in the Antarctic region and shaping a global effort to tackle climate change.

“Future Boaty missions and the new RRS Sir David Attenborough research vessel will ensure the UK continues to punch above its weight and lead the way in polar science, engineering and technology as part of our Industrial Strategy.”

Over the course of the expedition, conducted as part of the larger DynOPO (Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow) seven-week expedition, Boaty embarked upon and subsequently completed 3 separate missions; the longest of these lasted three days, travelled more than 180km and reached depths of nearly 4,000m.

Professor Alberto Naveira Garabato from the University of Southampton, the lead scientist o the DynOPO project, said of the motivating factors behind the expedition, “The Orkney Passage is a key chokepoint to the flow of abyssal waters in which we expect the mechanism linking changing winds to abyssal water warming to operate. Our goal is to learn enough about these convoluted processes to represent them (for the first time) in the models that scientists use to predict how our climate will evolve over the 21st century and beyond.

“We have been able to collect massive amounts of data that we have never been able to capture before due to the way Boaty (Autosub Long Range) is able to move underwater. Up until now we have only been able to take measurements from a fixed point, but now, we are able to obtain a much more detailed picture of what is happening in this very important underwater landscape. The challenge for us now, is to analyse it all.”

Steve McPhail, Head of the AUV Development at the National Oceanography Centre, also commented, “Although these recent deployments tested the technological capabilities of Autosub Long Range, we are extremely pleased with the results and the data that we have been able to provide to the scientific community.  In the near future, we are looking forward to expanding and developing the fleet on the success of this last mission.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.