Boaty McBoatface Submarine Set To Attempt Epic Arctic Trip


Katy Evans

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

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Sir David Attenborough introduces the real Boaty McBoatface at the RRS David Attenborough's official Keel-Laying ceremony on October 17. Christopher Furlong/Getty

They asked and the British people spoke. No, not Brexit, we are of course talking about Boaty McBoatface. Although the illustrious Arctic research ship didn’t actually end up being named that – it has been named after another illustrious Briton, Sir David Attenborough – the name didn’t go to waste and has been bestowed upon the ship’s research submarine.

And the yellow robotic submarine is currently preparing for a one-of-a-kind challenge to take place in 2018 or 2019: to be the world’s first research vehicle to travel under the ice from one side of the Arctic Basin to the other.


"The NOC [National Oceanography Centre] has a long history of innovation in marine robotics, and Boaty McBoatface is the latest addition to the Autosub family of robotic underwater vehicles developed here in Southampton,” said Professor Russell Wynn from the NOC, the Attenborough and Boaty’s base, in a statement. “The Autosubs have a proven track record of pioneering science missions, including under ice and to the deepest parts of the ocean.”

This will be the first time an autonomous robot sub has attempted to cross the basin fully submerged under the ice, as none previously has had the endurance to attempt the 2,500-kilometer (1,500 miles) journey. The team behind the project is aware of the high risk but are confident it will succeed.

“There could well be some dramas ahead for those people who plan to follow Boaty on his missions. We do occasionally lose our vehicles, and they can get caught in fishing nets from time to time,” Professor Wynn told the BBC.

“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.”


Boaty McBoatface out for testing in the Solent. NOC

Able to reach depths of 19,700 feet (6,000 meters), Boaty is to be able to go further than any robot sub, operating for months on end without having to be recalled and recharged, which opens up fantastic opportunities for scientists and researchers. Exploring the polar regions has necessitated the development of some smart new technology for the sub, too.

Unable to use GPS location tracking due to the thick sea ice, or a plain old compass due to the poles, the team are planning to “teach” Boaty to read maps.

“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,” Wynn explained. “It’s a neat concept but it’s never been tested over thousands of km before.”


The Polar Explorer Programme was set up in 2014 after a £200 million investment from the UK government to enable world-leading research into the Arctic and Antarctica and inspire the next generations of scientists and engineers, as well as enhancing the understanding of STEM concepts among younger people. In their words, they aim to “develop your inner explorer”.

Until the RRS David Attenborough is ready to set sail in 2018, Boaty has a few missions to undertake in preparation. In March next year it will be exploring the Southern Ocean in Antarctica, collecting data on bottom water flow. Then, later in the year, it will be fitted with acoustic and chemical sensors and sent into the North Sea to “sniff out” signals of gas released beneath the seabed.

We don’t know about you, but we’re definitely going to be keeping watch on the little submarine that could.

The sub, affectionately known just as Boaty, is raring to go. NOC