RRS Sir David Attenborough

2019 onwards
Summer: 90, Winter: 90

A new polar research ship for Britain

Construction has begun on the RRS Sir David Attenborough – one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world. From 2019 scientists researching oceans, ice and atmosphere will have access to state-of-the-art facilities on this floating laboratory.

At approximately 128m long and 24m wide the new ship will be capable of spending 60 days at sea without resupply, and have a range of over 35,000 km: more than enough for a return trip from England to Rothera Research Station, or to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice!  The new polar ship for Britain will:

  • Provide a multi-disciplinary research platform to support a wide range of science
  • Carry a large number of scientists to undertake research using specialist labs and facilities
  • Be very quiet for environmental monitoring
  • Have good dynamic positioning for instrument deployment
  • Stay at sea undertaking science for research cruises
  • Transport people and supplies to research stations

Investing in science, technology and engineering

Britain has been a world leader in polar exploration and research for over a century. Studying these remote regions plays a crucial role in helping us understand the changes in our planet’s oceans, marine life and climate system. The two existing British polar ships, the RRS Ernest Shackleton and the RRS James Clark Ross, are nearing the end of their 25-year lifespan, so there is a need for a new, modern platform for Arctic and Antarctic research. Operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the ship will be available year-round to the whole UK research community, including postgraduate trainees.

The commissioning of this new ship, and an infrastructure modernisation programme associated with it, represents the UK Government‘s largest investment in polar science since the 1980s.    This £200m commitment will ensure Britain’s continued position as a world leader in the field of environmental science.

The ship is commissioned by NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) and built by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead to a Rolls Royce design. With greater fuel efficiency and an ability to use remotely operated and robotic technologies, the ship is expected to reduce the environmental impact of ship-borne science and save more than £100m in operating costs over its 25-year lifespan.

Enhanced scientific capability

The RRS Sir David Attenborough‘s design optimises her ability to support science in extreme environments. Specialist facilities, instruments and laboratories will enable scientists to conduct a wide range of multi-disciplinary sciences to study the ocean, seafloor and atmosphere.  Data from the deep ocean and under-ice inaccessible locations will be captured using robotic and remotely operated devices.

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

Containerised laboratories introduce a new flexibility in science support.  As technologies and techniques change the containers can be reconfigured to ensure research teams have what they need.

Technical features

  • 128m long, 24m beam, 15,000gt
  • Scientific cargo volume of approximately 900m
  • Endurance – up to 60 days (Polar Regions)
  • Range 19,000nm at 13 knots transit
  • Ice breaking capability – up to 1m thick at 3 knots
  • Launch and recovery of aerial and ocean robotic systems
  • Crew approx. 30
  • Accommodation for 60 scientists and support staff

Intelligent instruments and marine robotics

We now live in a digital age characterised by intelligent instrumentation. The new ship will be able better to exploit UK marine robotics capability through deployment of a new generation of autonomous and remotely-operated vehicles in polar regions. It will also incorporate enhanced communications and data handling capabilities to enable real-time data delivery and remote UK-based instrument operation. As an analogy, it will be the equivalent of an aircraft carrier, acting as a central platform controlling instruments and vehicles in a surrounding theatre of scientific research and exploration. This enables efficient and optimal use of research resources and time.

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.

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 transporting people and supplies to the research stations. With her ability to spend up to 60 days at sea unsupported, and an ice-strengthened hull designed to break through ice up to 1m thick, the RRS Sir David Attenborough will undertake extensive voyages with significantly greater geographic coverage than the RRS James Clark Ross. Its scientific cargo hold will have roughly the volume of a terraced house! A helideck will facilitate collaborative research programmes with other national polar research operators.

Rolls Royce have designed the ship as a Polar Code 4 ice class, Lloyd’s Register classification, space for a total of 90 people, a large cargo capacity, long cruising range and endurance, and the minimum risk of pollution.

Diplomatic role

In addition to her research role the RRS Sir David Attenborough will be a visible symbol of continuing British presence in British Antarctic Territory and the South Atlantic, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.



RRS Sir David  Attenborough is designed to provide UK polar researchers and their collaborators with access to state-of-the-art ship-borne facilities for studying a wide range of disciplines, particularly in the fields of physical, biological and chemical oceanography, marine geology and geophysics, and atmospheric science. There is a scientific imperative to understand the role that the polar oceans play our changing world. The Southern Ocean has the sparsest data coverage of any of the world’s major oceans, due to its remoteness and inhospitable nature. International studies focused on a changing Arctic will be enhanced when this new facility comes on-stream.  Marine geophysical and geological investigations to map and date seafloor glacial landforms help create past climate reconstructions.

Scientific features

  • Helideck and hangar for two small helicopters to assist with the deployment of airborne scientific instruments and scientific field parties
  • Reconfigurable laboratory space to meet evolving science needs over the lifetime of the vessel, with docking stations for containerised laboratories
  • Enhanced science winching capability and a moon-pool for the flexible and reliable deployment and retrieval of scientific equipment such as remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles
  • Capability to deploy, operate and control large numbers of remotely piloted science instruments at the same time
  • Sophisticated underwater environmental monitoring systems


  • 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

NEWS STORY: New polar ship contract signed

23 November, 2015

The contract for the UK’s new polar research ship was signed NERC’s Chief Operating Office Paul Fox and Cammell Laird Chief Executive, John Syvret CBE on Friday 19 November 2015 …

NEWS STORY: New polar ship bidder selected

12 October, 2015

Government announces preferred bidder to build new polar ship Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson announced today that the preferred bidder to build a new polar research …


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