The Adventures of Boaty McBoatface


It’s been over 2 years since the notorious National Environmental Research Council (NERC) public vote to decide a new Polar research ship’s name.

Although RSS David Attenborough was chosen as the new vessel’s name after the much beloved naturalist below, then-British science minister Jo Johnson announced as a compromise to name an autosubmarine from the University of Southampton’s own National Oceanography Centre (NOC) Boaty McBoatfaceWessex Scene takes a look at what Boaty has been up to.

Embed from Getty Images

While the research vessel RSS David Attenborough was launched only last month, the bright yellow autosub Boaty McBoatface settled into its new home at NOC in October 2016. Being the lead boat of the Autosub Long Range-class of autonomous underwater vehicles, Boaty required extensive testing before placing on active duty.

The Autosub Long Range-class is NOC’s newest class of autosubs, which boast a 6,000 kilometre range, endurance of 6 months and can dive down to depths of 6,000 metres. Aiding the longer endurance of this class of subs is both their slow propulsion speed – 0.4 ms-1 – and the AUV’s sensory and control systems’ management of power used. Without oxygen supply, internal combustion engines are impractical, hence all autosubs depending upon battery power. Once an autosub has dived, satellite-based GPS positioning no longer works. Instead, to calculate its precise sea location, the autosub relies upon a fibre-optic gyro-based sensor. Boaty periodically resurfaces to transmit data back to scientists via an Iridium satellite data link.

In preparation for deep-water dives in the Antarctic, Boaty was put through her paces in Loch Ness and off the Canary Islands. Passing with flying colours, Boaty McBoatface‘s next step was her first active mission…

Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow (DynOPO)

Departing from the Chilean port of Punta Arenas in March 2017 aboard the RSS James Clark Ross, Boaty was first deployed into action the next month, underwater for 30 hours.

Overall, Boaty was deployed three times across a 3 month period, once reaching a depth of nearly 4 kilometres. The mission was headed by University of Southampton scientist Professor Alberto Naveira Garabato, with another University of Southampton scientist, Dr Eleanor Frajka-Williams, also taking a leading role. The project’s core aim was to investigate the impact of climate change on the flow of Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW) through the Orkney Passage, a seabed valley linking the Atlantic Ocean and Weddell Sea, lying to the east of the South Orkney Islands.

The hypothesis being tested was that North Weddell Sea winds regulate the volume and temperature of AABW exported northward via the Orkney Passage by altering the intensity of turbulent mixing between AABW and overlying warmer waters. Boaty was used to measure the intensity of ocean mixing, travelling back and forth through an abyssal AABW current in the Orkney Passage, sometimes in temperatures of colder than 0° Celsius and current strength of more than 1 knot (1.852km/hr).

Credit: Boaty McBoatface M44 in Orkney Passage from Dr Eleanor Frajka-Williams on Vimeo (Attribution License).

One of Boaty’s 3 missions was not without drama, as she once became enveloped in a huge swarm of krill at 80 metres depth. The sub’s echo sounders thought it had reached the sea bottom and she returned herself to the surface!

According to the British Antarctic Survey, the overall DynOPO project concludes on 30 September 2018, meaning analysis of the data compiled by Boaty and an overall project report may come soon.

Filchner Ice Shelf System (FISS)

Boaty’s next and most recent deployment tested the autosub’s capabilities even further by gathering data beneath an ice shelf in the Antarctic Weddell Sea.

FISS, which commenced in 2015 and is scheduled to conclude in Spring 2020, seeks to understand how a large part of Antarctica – the Filchner shelf system covers one-fifth of the continent – will cope with ever-rising temperatures due to climate change. The mission’s ultimate objective is to feed data and trends noted into the second generation of Hadley Centre global environmental earth-system models, HadGEM2 for short. HadGEM2 will likely play a key role in climate predictions in future Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.

Embed from Getty Images

Boaty aided the project in early 2018 by travelling beneath the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf, the largest floating glacial tongue on Earth. Specially fitted to measure the ocean’s turbulence, phytoplankton volume and the water’s clarity, the autosub spent 51 hours straight beneath the ice shelf, travelling a total distance of 108km. Steve McPhail, Head of Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Development at the National Oceanographic Centre, confirmed afterwards that for 90% of the mission’s duration, Boaty was out of contact of the research team.

Boaty’s current residence and gaseous future

Boaty McBoatface has returned to its NOCS abode this summer, receiving visitations from then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and US Embassy science and technology officers.

The autosub is lined up for participation in the STEM-CCS research project in 2019. This project will study the potential of carbon capture and storage to help reduce man-made CO2 emissions in the atmosphere by 80-95% by 2050 in order to try to limit climate change-derived temperature increases to 2°C, as agreed to by nations in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Boaty will be fitted with acoustic and chemical sensors and deployed in the North Sea, helping monitor the world’s first ‘real world’ deep-water controlled experiment to imitate a possible leakage from a carbon capture and storage reservoir.

So there you have it, the adventures of Boaty McBoatface. As well as inspiring Train McTrainface, Horsey McHorseface and other variants, Boaty is a highly-advanced AUV originating from the University of Southampton at the cutting-edge of scientific research in assessing remote ocean environments, climate change and possible solutions to reducing man-made CO2 emissions.


Editor 2018-19 | International Editor 2017/18. Final year Modern History and Politics student from Bedford. Drinks far too much tea for his own good.

Leave A Reply