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.
“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 have planned and executed missions for the little yellow sub that’s capable of diving to depths of more than four miles.
For example, this past March, Boaty traveled 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’s mission was to navigate through a “cold abyssal current that forms an important part of the global circulation of ocean water,” The Telegraph reported in March
“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 in March. “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.”
And that’s just what Boaty did. After seven weeks and three underwater missions, the longest of which lasted three days, Boaty traveled more than 112 miles and reached depths of almost 2.5 miles. The water would often dip below 33 degree Fahrenheit, with the abyssal current sometimes topping out at 1 knot. Basically, it was a very unpleasant trip for Boaty, but scientists are thrilled with the data regarding water flow and climate change that Boaty gathered. They released a visualization and explanation of one of Boaty’s underwater adventures as well.
“We have been able to collect massive amounts of data that we have never been able to capture before due to the way Boaty (Autosub Long Range) is able to move underwater,” Garabato said. “Up until now we have only been able to take measurements from a fixed point, but now, we are able to obtain a much more detailed picture of what is happening in this very important underwater landscape.”
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.
Boaty McBoatface tests chilly Antarctic waters
The Internet’s favorite undersea autonomous vehicle dips a toe in the water before an unprecedented 1,500-mile Arctic crossing.