'Boaty McBoatface' to attempt Arctic challenge

The Internet's favorite undersea autonomous vehicle heads to Antarctica before an unprecedented 1,500-mile Arctic crossing.

Boaty McBoatface

Boaty McBoatface is a high-tech undersea autonomous submarine with a name that just makes you smile. (Photo: NERC)

Boaty McBoatface is preparing to go where no autonomous vehicle has ever gone before.

Sometime in either 2018 or 2019, the remotely operated sub will attempt to become the first undersea drone to complete an Arctic crossing –– traveling under 1,500 miles of sea ice from one end of the ocean basin to the other.

“It represents one of the last great transects on Earth for an autonomous sub," professor Russell Wynn, from Boaty's U.K. base at the National Oceanography Centre, told the BBC. "Previously, such subs have gone perhaps 150 kilometers under the ice and then come back out again. Boaty will have the endurance to go all the way to the Arctic."

The robotic sub earned its unique moniker after an internet competition last year to name the new technologically advanced polar research vessel. Boaty McBoatface grabbed more than 124,000 votes, but was ultimately denied as officials were reluctant to give such an important vessel an unusual designation. Instead, the research vessel was named after naturalist Sir David Attenborough and its accompanying drone submarine was given the Boaty name.

R.R.S. Sir David Attenborough A rendering of the R.R.S. Sir David Attenborough, which is expected to enter service in 2019. (Photo: NERC)

"The ship has captured the imaginations of millions, which is why we're ensuring that the Boaty name lives on through the sub-sea vehicle that will support the research crew, and the polar science education program that will bring their work to life," Science Minister Jo Johnson said in a statement.

An Antarctic mission

According to the National Oceanography Centre, Boaty's undersea expeditions will be more than just a marathon crossing. Researchers are currently planning missions for the little yellow sub that's capable of diving to depths of more than four miles.

For example, this week Boaty will travel with the British Antarctic Survey research ship James Clark Ross from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the Orkney Passage in Antarctica, a 2-mile-deep area of the Southern Ocean. Boaty will navigate through a "cold abyssal current that forms an important part of the global circulation of ocean water," The Telegraph reports.

"The Orkney Passage is a key choke-point to the flow of abyssal waters in which we expect the mechanism linking changing winds to abyssal water warming to operate," lead scientist Alberto Naveira Garabato, a professor from the University of Southampton, told The Telegraph. "We will measure how fast the streams flow, how turbulent they are, and how they respond to changes in winds over the Southern Ocean. Our goal is to learn enough about these convoluted processes to represent them in the models that scientists use to predict how our climate will evolve over the 21st century and beyond."

Risky business

Since GPS guidance is not reliable underwater, Boaty will also have to learn how to read a map.

“You give it a map of the seabed in its brain and then as it travels, it uses sonar to collect data that it can compare with the stored map," Wynn told the BBC. "This should tell it where it is. It’s a neat concept, but it’s never been tested over thousands of kilometers before."

Wynn also warned fans of Boaty not to get too attached to the little sub due to the serious dangers that can plague undersea autonomous vehicles.

“There could well be some dramas ahead for those people who plan to follow Boaty on his missions," he warned.

As the internet well knows, if anyone can do it, it's Boaty McBoatface. Here's hoping this little robot makes it from one end of the Arctic to the other with flying colors.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in October 2016.


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