What is a Research Vessel?
Research vessels are purpose built to take scientists and scientific equipment to the sea to conduct research. Some are dedicated to one type of research, like the Chikyū
drillship, while others like the Nuyina icebreaker have more broad capabilities. There are many research ships in service, and we will take a look at how they work, some of the well-known vessels, and what the future holds with unmanned and autonomous vessels.
History of research ships
Replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavor. “By colin f m smith, CC BY-SA 2.0”.
Research vessels have their roots in early exploration as people took to the seas to find answers to their world. The HMS Endeavor sailed in 1768 on a voyage of discovery for the British Royal Navy and is considered the first research vessel. Their mission was to explore the Pacific Ocean for Terra Australis Incognita, or “unknown southern land”, according to Wikipedia. After leaving Plymouth, going around Cape Horn, and making the journey to Tahiti, it observed the 1769 transit of Venus across the Sun. The ship then headed south finding islands like Bora Bora, eventually anchoring in New Zealand in September 1769. According to Wikipedia, she became “the first European vessel to reach the islands since Abel Tasman's Heemskerck 127 years earlier.” In 1770 it reached Australia, running aground on the Great Barrier Reef and after repairs, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1771 and reached the English port of Dover after three years at sea.
In the late 1800s interest grew in exploring the North and South Poles, with many ships meeting a grim fate. Others made numerous scientific observations including hydrographical, meteorological, and magnetic surveys while getting quite close to the North Pole. Ships also rushed to the Antarctic, with the Belgica being the first ship to overwinter there with 80 scientists on board. More journeys to the frigid poles in the 1900s resulted in better vessels with round hulls to withstand ice pressures and better preparedness for harsh conditions and deadly ice. By the 1950s international collaboration on research vessels had begun, with Canadian, American, and Japanese vessels working closely. Now countries all over the world work together on oceanographic research and companies like Ocean Infinity are building fleets of autonomous vessels that can stay at sea for months at a time without crew, collecting data for research.
“The Belgica 1898 photograph showing the ship stuck, held fast, in the ice with three crew members in the foreground”. “By Frederick Cook -Public Domain”.
Research vessels have many special capabilities not seen in normal ships. Research may require long periods at sea, and many research vessels carry dozens of scientists, requiring facilities for recreation, exercise and food. Many have special laboratories to perform experiments and analyze samples on site, the ability to launch remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), cranes to lift heavy equipment into and out of the water, and strong hulls to withstand ice.
According to Wikipedia, some of the more specialized vessels are:
Oceanographic research vessels that examine the biological, physical, and chemical characteristics of water, as well as the atmosphere and climate. They are built to collect water samples at different depths, perform hydrographic sounding of the sea floor, and carry many sensors onboard. They also support divers and ROVs.
Hydrographic survey vessels are built specifically for hydrographic research to produce nautical charts and can also conduct seismic surveys of undersea geology with air cannons. Like many other research vessels, they can support multiple roles.
Polar research vessels use an icebreaker hull to navigate in cold waters and get through layers of surface ice. They conduct research as well as replenish research bases like those in the Antarctic.
Fisheries research ships tow fishing nets and can collect plankton and water. They are similar to a fishing vessel but instead of space to store a large catch, they contain laboratories and scientific equipment.
Naval research vessels also exist to perform functions like mine detection, submarine location, and technology trials for sonar and weapons.
Some icebreakers can break through ice 16 feet thick, usually achieved by running up onto the ice with the front of the ship until it cracks and breaks. This requires a strengthened hull with a rounded design for pushing away ice after it fractures so it doesn’t damage the ship. They are usually very heavy, don’t have stabilizers (meaning they pitch and roll on the open ocean), and have very powerful engines connected to easily replaceable propellers. Some even have air bubbling systems and heated water jets that assist the ice breaking process. They are purpose built and all of this extra power, weight, and special materials makes they quite expensive and not well suited for regular ocean travel, but perfect for research near the poles. Check out more about these ships in our article What is an icebreaker?
Nuyina under tow. Image Credit: Australian Antarctic Program.
The Nuyina is a an Australian research, supply, and icebreaking vessel all in one. Built to resupply Antarctic research bases, it travels from Australia to the Antarctic, doing research along the way while bringing supplies to one of the most harsh environments in the world. It has cutting edge technology like fiber optic cables that supply data and power to research equipment, a moonpool for ROVs and samples, and containerized labs for scientists. The vessel cost $500 million to build plus another $1.4 billion for operations for the next 30 years. Nuyina replaces the Aurora Australis and is a faster and larger vessel that runs so quietly scientists will be able to perform research in transit. It will hold 116 scientific personnel and 34 crew, and can embark up to four helicopters! Nuyina means southern lights in the native language of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Scientists study antarctica because it is a 4 kilometer thick layer of ice with a million years of history recorded inside, it’s also almost completely untouched by humans and a great place to study galaxies above or penguins right at your feet.
“R/P FLIP with a full Moon. Taken from the R/V Melville, November 2013. Photo: Evan Walsh”. Image from Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
FLIP stands for FLoating Instrument Platform and is a research vessel that flips 90 degrees with most of its hull going underwater. Ballast tanks fill with water, rotating the vessel into place so that only 17 meters is above the water with 91 meters below, leaving all the scientific instruments underwater to collect data. This is beneficial because the vessel is more stable to detect small fluctuations in subsurface sound waves caused by the ocean floor. It is still in operation, usually somewhere off the west coast of the United States where it has to be towed into position due a lack of propulsion since engines could damage the sensitive equipment inside the vessel. It was built in 1962 and can handle 80 foot swells. This unique vessel is operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Marine Physical Laboratory in California.
Chikyū on the water. Image from JAMSTEC.
Chikyū holds the world record for deepest drilling into the sea floor by any vessel in the world. The mission of this ship is to retrieve samples from the mantle below the Earth’s crust at plate intersections to understand how plates move and create earthquakes like the one that devastated Fukushima. The vessel’s name means “Earth”, and is operated by the Japanese Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). Scientists look for the best places to drill in the hopes of drilling into an asperity, or bulge where tectonic plates push against each other and distort, storing energy that can be released in an earthquake. No one has ever sampled magma directly from the mantle, which is why this ship was built with the best drilling technology, which has so far allowed it to drill 3,250 meters, still short of its 5,200 meter goal. Each time the vessel goes out they get valuable information on getting a little farther down.
Chikyū is a dynamically positioned vessel, meaning it use thrusters to stay on station in the ocean without the use of anchors. This is especially important for deepwater drilling as anchors aren’t really feasible at extreme depths. DP systems use computer controls to adjust thrusters to keep ships in place even in rough seas. Drilling deep into the Earth can take months, so the vessel has to stay in position for all that time regardless of winds, waves, and weather. Check out more about dynamic positioning in our article What is dynamic positioning?
Autonomous research vessels
Ocean Infinity Armada render. Image from Ocean Infinity.
With the growth of autonomous technology, some research vessels no longer need to be manned and can stay at sea for months without human interference. Ocean Infinity is building a fleet of these vessels to perform research on the oceans and weather patterns across the world. They’ve also searched for shipwrecks, collected geophysical, geotechnical, and seismic data, and used their technology in Antarctic research expeditions, according to Ocean Infinity. They sent Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and ROVs under the ice shelves measure physical and biological parameters below the sea ice.
Saildrone also operates unmanned vessels to collect data on the oceans. In September of 2021 they sailed one of their drones into the eye of a hurricane, collected the first video from an unmanned ship inside a hurricane at sea, according to The Maritime Executive. Autonomous and unmanned technology makes leaving research ships at sea for months, collecting data from under ice sheets, and taking readings inside hurricanes much more accessible to scientists around the world.
Although advances in technology make it possible to go places it would be too dangerous for humans, there are still plenty of problems that need people on-site. Being able to immediately analyze a fresh core sample from 3,000 meters below the ocean floor allows scientists to see microorganisms that live there in real-time. Being on location in Antarctica to study penguins or the night sky is still no replacement for a camera feed. As technology advances, we will continue to see manned and unmanned research vessels working together to advance the knowledge of humankind. We hope we can do our part by testing those ship’s electrical systems to make sure they’re safe!