A small yellow robot submarine, called Boaty McBoatface after acompetition to name a new polar research ship backfired, is being sent on its first Antarctic mission.
Boaty, which has arguably one of the most famous names in recent maritime history, is a new type of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), which will be able to travel under ice, reach depths of 6,000 metres, and transmit the data it collects to researchers via a radio link.
Its mission will be to investigate water flow and turbulence in the dark depths of the Orkney Passage, a 3.5km deep region of the Southern Ocean. The data it collects will help scientists understand how the ocean is responding to global warming.
The name it was given came in the wake of a campaign by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) that asked members of the public to suggest names for its new polar research ship.
When the former BBC Radio Jersey presenter James Hand jokingly suggested Boaty McBoatface, it quickly became the most popular choice and the name won the vote by a huge majority.
The NERC, however, said it would have the final say, and that the most popular name would not necessarily be the one chosen. It instead named the £200m ship after the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.
But in a nod to the democratic process it allowed silliness to prevail by preserving the name for the remotely operated sub-sea vehicle.
Boaty will travel with the DynOPO (Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow) expedition on the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research ship James Clark Ross, departing from Punta Arenas in Chile on 17 March.
The lead scientist Prof Alberto Naveira Garabato, from the University of Southampton, said: “The Orkney Passage is a key choke-point to the flow of abyssal waters in which we expect the mechanism linking changing winds to abyssal water warming to operate.
“We will measure how fast the streams flow, how turbulent they are, and how they respond to changes in winds over the Southern Ocean.
“Our goal is to learn enough about these convoluted processes to represent them in the models that scientists use to predict how our climate will evolve over the 21st century and beyond.”
The craft will be sent back and forth through a cold abyssal current that forms an important part of the global circulation of ocean water.
The BAS oceanographer and co-investigator Dr Povl Abrahamsen said: “The DynOPO project will provide us with a unique, high-resolution dataset combining moored and moving instruments, which will help us get to the bottom of the complex physical processes occurring in this important region.”
In 2019 Boaty McBoatface will be fitted with acoustic and chemical sensors and sent into the North Sea to “sniff out” signals associated with the artificial release of gas beneath the seabed. A future aim for Boaty will be to attempt the first-ever crossing of the Arctic Ocean under ice, which has the potential to deliver a significant change in scientists’ ability to observe change in this vital region.
The National Oceanography Centre, which developed the fleet of marine robots, has also created a cartoon likeness of Boaty to help tell the story of ocean exploration to children. A full-sized inflatable will travel to events across the country.
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