RRS Sir David Attenborough

Autumn 2019 onwards
Summer: 90, Winter: 90

A new polar research ship for Britain

Construction is progressing on the RRS Sir David Attenborough – one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world. Following technical sea trials and scientific equipment testing, scientists researching oceans, ice and atmosphere will have access to state-of-the-art facilities on this floating multidisciplinary research platform.

The new polar ship is commissioned by NERC, built by Cammell Laird and operated by British Antarctic Survey. This new research platform will transform how ship-borne science is conducted in the Polar Regions. The commissioning of the RRS Sir David Attenborough is part of a major Government polar infrastructure investment programme designed to 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.


2019 ceremonial naming

On 26 September 2019 the ship was named by HRH The Duchess of Cambridge.  Watch this highlight video.

Construction timelapse

Watch this amazing timelapse showing construction progress which began with the laying of the keel in October 2016.

Exploring new frontiers

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

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 30-year lifespan.

State-of-the-art platform for science

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 RRS James Clark Ross, is nearing the end of her 25-year lifespan and the RRS Ernest Shackleton, was returned to its owners GC Riebers on 30 April 2019, after 20 years of polar duties for BAS (Read more here).  This means 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.

Enhanced scientific capability

The RRS Sir David Attenborough‘s design optimises her ability to support science in extreme environments. A wide range of specialist scientific 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. Marine robotics and remotely operated vehicles will capture data  from the deep ocean and previously inaccessible locations under the ice. The famous Boaty McBoatface will be deployed on scientific missions in the Polar Regions.

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.

The ship will be able to deploy, operate and control a range of remotely piloted science instruments at the same time. This means scientists can gather detailed simultaneous measurements from both airborne and marine remotely operated vehicles and autonomous platforms. She is the first British polar research ship to feature a moon pool – a vertical shaft (~4 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 deployed and recovered through the centre, and thus most stable part, of the hull. This is both easier and safer than deploying equipment over the side or stern, particularly in the rough seas characteristic of the polar oceans.

While the ship will have a number of built-in laboratories on board, it will also have the capabilit to ‘plug-in’ portable containerised laboratories. This increased space for containerised laboratories, compared with RRS James Clark Ross, introduces a new level of flexibility in science support. As technologies and techniques change the containers can be reconfigured to ensure research teams have what 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 transporting people and supplies to BAS 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. The ship’s operational facilities will enable it to undertake logistics work efficiently, maximising the time spent on research cruises.

Building a new polar vessel

Modern ships are constructed in ‘blocks’




RRS Sir David Attenborough is designed to provide UK polar researchers and their international collaborators with access to state-of-the-art multi-disciplinary resarch platform to enable the study of a wide range of marine disciplines, outlined below.

There is a scientific imperative to understand the role that the polar oceans play in our changing world. The Southern Ocean, in particular, currently has the sparsest data coverage of any of the world’s major oceans due to its remoteness and inhospitable nature. The RRS Sir David Attenborough will play an important role in improving our knowledge of the key polar atmospheric and oceanic processes, which are critical for regulating the earth’s climate. It will also enhance our knowledge of the Southern Ocean ecosystem, essential for the conservation and management of Antarctica’s species and biological resources.

International studies focused on a changing Arctic will also be enhanced when this new facility comes on-stream.The new ship will enable scientists to investigate the impact that physical and biological changes in the Arctic environment (atmosphere, ice and ocean) will have on Arctic and non-Arctic countries alike.

At both poles, marine geophysical and geological investigations will 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 the flexible and reliable deployment and retrieval of scientific equipment such as remotely operated vehicles and automous 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

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.

RRS Sir David Attenborough latest milestones

16 January, 2020

BIRKENHEAD. The RRS Sir David Attenborough achieved two important milestones at Cammell Laird’s shipyard this month with the commissioning and testing of lifeboats and power systems. The ship is in …

Poet Laureate marks naming of polar ship

20 October, 2019

A new work by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage celebrates the RRS Sir David Attenborough. In this video Simon describes his inspiration for the poem, which can be read in full …

First Antarctic construction season success

21 May, 2019

ANTARCTICA: At the onset of the Antarctic winter British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Rothera Research Station bids farewell to 50 construction workers.  They have spent the last six months building the …

New polar research ship makes a ‘splash’

11 July, 2018

RRS Sir David Attenborough hull launch into River Mersey 14 July Update 20 July 2018 – watch video of launch A major milestone in the build of the UK’s state-of-the-art …

The RRS Sir David Attenborough in the virtual wind tunnel

27 October, 2017

The RRS Sir David Attenborough (SDA) just got another step closer to completion as the Hamburg Ship Model Basin (HSVA) investigated the aerodynamic performance of Britain’s new polar research vessel using a computer generated ‘virtual wind tunnel’

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 …

NEWS STORY: Funding announced for new ship

25 April, 2014

New polar research ship for UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Rt Hon George Osborne MP announced this week (Friday 25 April 2014) that the Government has earmarked more than …

Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow (DynOPO)

Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow (DynOPO) is a collaboration between BAS, the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). The project aims to investigate the flow of …


Understanding the Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat, Carbon Sequestration and Transports


The BAS Transformation programme – Fit for the Future – aims to modernise, update and improve processes and systems across the operation to ensure the benefits of the Antarctic Infrastructure …