RRS Sir David Attenborough

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. From 2019 onwards 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 to a Rolls-Royce design 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.

Construction timelapse

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

CGI showing a completed RRS Sir David Attenborough

Technical features

  • Length: 129; beam: 24m; weight: 15,000gt
  • Scientific cargo volume of approximately 900m³
  • Endurance – up to 60 days (Polar Regions)
  • Range 19,000nm 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 25-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 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.

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.

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 laboratories on board, the increased space for containerised laboratories from 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.

Intelligent instruments and marine robotics

The ship will have the capability to deploy, operate and control a range of remotely piloted science instruments at the same time (i.e. both airborne and marine remotely operated vehicles and autonomous platforms) in polar regions.  The famous Boaty McBoatface will be deployed on scientific missions.

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 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 with significantly greater geographic coverage than the RRS James Clark Ross. 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 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, in particular, currently 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 also 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, even in rough weather or in pack ice
  • 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

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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11 July, 2018

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The RRS Sir David Attenborough in the virtual wind tunnel

27 October, 2017

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12 October, 2015

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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 …

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