Boaty McBoatface, the bright yellow autonomous robotic submarine developed by the UK’s National Oceanography Center (NOC), has safely returned to its launch ship after traveling 108 kilometers (67 miles) under the almost 600-meter (1,970-foot) deep Filchner Ice Shelf (FIS).
The 51-hour expedition, Boaty’s longest since it was first put to work in 2017, gathered data on the water movement patterns, temperature, phytoplankton presence, and salinity under the 450,000-square-kilometer (173,745-square-mile) ice shelf that recently detached from Antarctica and now floats in the Weddell Sea.
Designed to accompany the state-of-the-art polar marine research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough when it is completed in 2019, Boaty’s latest real-world test was a collaboration between its NOC operators and researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the German Alfred Wegener Institute.
The group’s FIS Project seeks to understand how land and sea ice will respond to the water warming that is already occurring in other Antarctic regions. Slated for completion in 2020, the FIS Project will contribute to a climate projection model used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Boaty and the crew were transported by the German ice-breaking research vessel RV Polarstern. According to project leader Dr Adrian Jenkins, the robotic sub – officially referred to as an Autosub Long Range (ALR) – had to be deployed more than 32 kilometers (20 miles) away from the edge of the FIS because an untenably thick swathe of sea ice blocked the Polarstern’s path.
An infographic of Boaty McBoatface’s recent expedition. Courtesy of NOC.
“I am delighted in the success of this mission. For the engineers involved, this was a very challenging deployment that was not without risk,” said lead developer Steve McPhail in a statement.
On top of below-freezing air temperatures and the constant formation of sea ice surrounding the ship during deployment and recovery, the conditions under the shelf were incredibly treacherous, with strong tidal currents that could knock the submersible off course.
And if the sub did get lost under the ice, the team wouldn’t have known, let alone been able to troubleshoot; the antsy team had no communication with the ALR for 90 percent of its time in the water. (Deep under GPS-blocking ice, Boaty navigates by comparing sonar readings to stored maps.)
Now that the sub has proved its mettle, the NOC team are excitedly planning longer data-gathering expeditions for it and its anticipated siblings – once operational, the RSS Attenborough will house a small fleet of ALRs. These vehicles are engineered to reach depths of 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) and operate for months without needing to re-dock with a surface ship.
“The reason this mission under the Filchner Ice Shelf in the Antarctic is so significant is that it proves the concept of the new Boaty long-range vehicle being able to do this kind of work,” Russell Wynn, chief robotics scientist for NOC, said to the BBC.