RRS Sir David Attenborough

Autumn 2020 onwards
Summer: 90, Winter: 90

A new polar research ship for Britain

The RRS Sir David Attenborough is one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world. The state-of-the-art ship departed the UK for its maiden voyage on 17 November 2021.

In October 2020 the technical sea trials and scientific equipment testing began  and the ship was handed over to NERC and BAS by shipbuilder Cammell Laird on 27 November 2020.  This multidisciplinary research platform will transform how ship-borne science is conducted in the polar regions and provide scientists with state-of-the-art facilities to research the oceans, seafloor, ice and atmosphere.

The new polar ship was commissioned by NERC, built by Cammell Laird for operation by British Antarctic Survey. The commissioning of the RRS Sir David Attenborough is part of a major Government investment in polar infrastructure which will keep Britain at the forefront of world-leading research in Antarctica and the Arctic. This £200m commitment represents the UK Government‘s largest investment in polar science since the 1980s.

RRS Sir David Attenborough in London
RRS Sir David Attenborough in London during the PreCOP26 Ice Worlds Festival

Explore the ship’s scientific facilities and operational capability

Exploring new frontiers

Britain has been a world leader in polar exploration and research for over a century. Today, studying these remote regions is crucial in helping us understand changes in our planet’s oceans, marine life and climate system.

The RRS James Clark Ross was sold in August 2021 and the RRS Ernest Shackleton, was returned to its owners in 2019, after 20 years of polar duties for BAS.  This means a new, modern platform for Arctic and Antarctic research is needed. Operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), RRS Sir David Attenborough will be available year-round to the UK research community, including postgraduate trainees.

Discover how the RRS Sir David Attenborough will support scientists conducting vital research in the polar regions

Technical features

  • Length: 129 metres; beam: 24m;  Gross Tonnage: 15,000
  • Scientific cargo volume of approximately 900m³
  • Endurance – up to 60 days
  • Range 19,000 nautical miles at 13 knots (24 km/h) cruising speed; more than enough for a return trip from England to Rothera Research Station, or to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice!
  • Ice breaking capability – up to 1m thick at 3 knots (5.6 km/h)
  • Bow and stern thrusters for excellent dynamic positioning in challenging conditions
  • Launch and recovery of aerial and ocean robotic systems
  • Crew approx. 30
  • Accommodation for up to 60 scientists and support staff

Enhanced scientific capability

RRS Sir David Attenborough is designed to support science in extreme environments. A wide range of specialist scientific facilities, instruments and laboratories enable scientists to conduct multi-disciplinary sciences to study the ocean, seafloor, ice and atmosphere. Marine robotics and remotely operated vehicles – including the famous Boaty McBoatface – will capture data from the deep ocean and previously inaccessible locations under the ice.

Autosub pre-deployment checks onboard RRS James Clark Ross during the JR58 autosub cruise. The autonomous unmanned vehicle (AUV) Autosub-2 travels beneath sea ice carrying a variety of scientific instruments to inaccessible parts of the ocean, to make measurements of Antarctic krill distribution and abundance, and of ice thickness.
Autosub pre-deployment checks onboard. The autonomous unmanned vehicle (AUV) travels beneath sea ice carrying a variety of scientific instruments to inaccessible parts of the ocean, to make measurements of Antarctic krill distribution and abundance, and of ice thickness.

From the ship, scientists can deploy, operate and control a range of remotely piloted science instruments at the same time, meaning they can gather measurements from both airborne and marine remotely operated vehicles and autonomous platforms simultaneously.

She is also the first British polar research ship to feature a moon pool – a vertical shaft (~4 x 4 m) running through the vessel, open to both the air and sea. Using the moon pool, scientific equipment can be deployed and recovered through the centre, and most stable part, of the hull. This is easier and safer than deploying equipment over the side or stern, particularly in the polar oceans’ rough seas.

The ship has a number of built-in laboratories. However, it’s also possible to ‘plug-in’ portable, containerised laboratories. This makes science on board the RRS Sir David Attenborough much more flexible and, as technologies and techniques change, the containers can be reconfigured to ensure research teams have the facilities they need to conduct world-leading science.

Operational capability

The new polar ship for Britain will operate year-round. She will spend the northern summer supporting Arctic research cruises and the austral summer in Antarctica carrying out research programmes and bringing people and supplies to BAS research stations.

Her ice-strengthened hull, designed to break through ice up to one metre thick, and ability to spend up to 60 days at sea means the RRS Sir David Attenborough can undertake extensive voyages. The ship’s operational facilities will enable her to undertake logistics work efficiently, maximising the time spent on research cruises.

Building a new polar vessel

Modern ships are constructed in ‘blocks’

Useful documents

SDA video tour

Watch a tour of the RRS Sir David Attenborough:


RRS Sir David Attenborough provides UK polar researchers and their international collaborators with a state-of-the-art multi-disciplinary research platform to study the ocean, seafloor, ice and atmosphere.

It’s critical that we understand the role that the polar oceans play in our changing world. The Southern Ocean in particular has the sparsest data coverage of any of the world’s major oceans due to its remoteness and inhospitable nature. RRS Sir David Attenborough will play an important role in improving our knowledge of key polar atmospheric and oceanic processes, which regulate our climate. She will also enhance our knowledge of the Southern Ocean ecosystem, essential for conserving and managing Antarctica’s species and biological resources.

International studies focusing on the changing Arctic are also being enhanced by this new facility. The ship enables scientists to investigate the impact that physical and biological changes in the Arctic environment will have on Arctic and non-Arctic countries alike.

At both poles, researchers will carry out marine geophysical and geological investigations to map and date glacial landforms and sediments on the seafloor to reconstruct past environments. This is fundamental for helping predict how the polar regions may respond to future climate change and contribute to global sea-level rise.

Scientific activities:

  • Atmospheric science
  • Biological Oceanography
  • Chemical Oceanography (Biogeochemistry)
  • Physical Oceanography
  • Marine Geophysics
  • Marine Geology

Scientific facilities

  • Reconfigurable laboratory space to meet evolving science needs over the lifetime of the vessel, with docking stations for containerised laboratories for additional flexibility
  • Computing and communication facilities to enable seamless collection, processing, storage and real-time transmission of scientific data
  • Enhanced deck facilities including science hangar, winches and a moon-pool for flexible and reliable deployment and retrieval of scientific equipment such as remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles, even in rough weather and in pack ice
  • Small boats and diving facilities to enable sampling in shallow coastal areas and under pack ice
  • Helideck and hangar for two small helicopters to assist with the deployment of airborne scientific instruments and scientific field parties
  • Sophisticated environmental sensor systems to continuously monitor atmosphere, water-column and seabed conditions
  • Rock drills and sediment corers to collect seafloor samples offering valuable insights into past environmental conditions
  • Seismic systems to examine the structure and evolution of the seafloor

Next-generation technologies

  • Capability to deploy, operate and control large numbers of remotely piloted science instruments at the same time
  • Robotic submarines and marine gliders will collect data on ocean conditions and marine biology and deliver it to scientists working in the ship’s on-board laboratories
  • Airborne robots and on-board environmental monitoring systems will provide detailed information on the surrounding polar environment

How to test a new polar ship

16 July, 2021 by Emily Neville

At British Antarctic Survey, the next chapter in shipborne research is about to begin. Britain’s new polar ship, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, has been undergoing an intensive programme of …

Guest blog: Ship Ahoy!

21 October, 2020 by Nigel Bird

Guest Blog. UKRI-NERC’s Nigel Bird reflects on the highs and lows of the commission of RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Guest blog. RRS Sir David Attenborough: The story so far

20 April, 2017 by Paul Fox

Paul Fox, Senior Responsible Officer for RRS Sir David Attenborough, has written a guest blog for a behind-the-scenes look at NERC’s commission of a new polar research ship for Britain and the associated Antarctic infrastructure modernisation programme.

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