New UK vessel to raise benchmark in oceanographic research

NERC's newbuild ‘RRS Discovery’ is based on a Skipsteknisk design, the ST-344 NERC's newbuild ‘RRS Discovery’ is based on a Skipsteknisk design, the ST-344

David Tinsley describes a new scientific ship being built in Spain for a UK research organisation, to a Norwegian basic design and with Finnish propulsion.

UK ocean exploration capacity is set to be boosted by a £75 million ($122m) newbuild vessel equipped for multidisciplinary research in deep waters and extreme climates. Currently fitting out in northern Spain, and due to be handed over next year, the 6,000gt RRS Discovery pushes the bounds in terms of advanced design and functionality.

Dynamic positioning, cutting-edge hydroacoustic systems, deep-diving ROV (remotely-operated vehicle) technology, manifold laboratories for geological, geophysical, biological and chemical research, and a wide operating window are key features of the RRS Discovery. She will replace the 1962-built oceanographic ship of the same name in the fleet controlled by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The diesel-electric newbuild will be approximately 100m in length overall, and is due to embark on her first scientific mission in 2014, under the operational aegis of NERC’s National Marine Facilities Division, based at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. The vessel was ordered in March 2010 from Construcciones Navales P. Freire, and a series of model resistance, powering, seakeeping and manoeuvring tests were subsequently performed that year at MARIN’s Wageningen facilities.

CNP Freire, a long-established part of Vigo’s vibrant maritime industrial milieu, has a solid reputation in construction of special-purpose vessels, including research ships. The Galician yard won the order in the face of competition from Norway, Germany, the UK, Italy and elsewhere in Spain. The previous addition to the NERC fleet, the 90m RRS James Cook, was delivered in 2006 by Flekkefjord Slip & Maskinfabrikk of western Norway, which had subcontracted the hull to Crist Shipyard of Poland.

For the latest ship, NERC undertook extensive consultations with the user community. The findings of these investigations, in conjunction with lessons learned from the building of the RRS James Cook, have helped shape the newbuild project.

Tailored to NERC’s required specifications as the ST-344 type, the basic design of the nascent RRS Discovery was developed by Skipsteknisk under contract to CNP Freire, which prepared the detailed design and workshop drawings. Skipsteknisk had also been retained for the design of the RRS James Cook, and the Norwegian firm has been involved with the Spanish yard in several other research ship newbuild projects.

Although the existing RRS Discovery, a product of the former Hall Russell yard at Aberdeen, remains a highly capable vessel, having been extensively modernised and also jumboised in 1992, she is now almost a half-century old, and lacks many of the features and facilities, such as multibeam echosounder systems, dynamic positioning, and deepwater exploration capacity, required today by the marine science community.

The new research ship will address some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, providing a state-of-the-art platform for ocean measurements relating to marine ecosystems, underwater earthquakes and landslides, and climate change. She will be capable of operating globally in higher sea states than her namesake, and will be strengthened and fitted for work in high latitudes, in air temperatures down to -20°C and water temperatures to -2°C. This multi-role ship will accordingly suit deployments equally well at the ice edge as in the tropics. Accommodation will be provided for 24 crew and up to 28 scientists.

Distinguished by its extent and sophistication, the hydroacoustic suite is one of the most important components of the new ship’s sensor fit. The array is mounted in two main areas, whereby the seabed-mapping multibeam echosounders and profilers are incorporated in the novel, hull bottom ‘blister’, while a range of other acoustic instruments are fitted in two drop keels.

Kongsberg Maritime has been contracted to deliver and install a comprehensive, integrated systems package covering the hydroacoustic, research, navigation, dynamic positioning and video monitoring functions, and including a proprietary K-Sync synchronising unit for integration purposes. The array of instruments and equipment includes EM122 deepwater multibeam, EM710 medium-water wideband multibeam and EA600 single-beam echosounders, plus a SBP120 sub-bottom profiler for geophysics applications, hydrophones and a Simrad EK60 multi-frequency echosounder for fisheries research. The Norwegian company is also supplying its K-Bridge integrated bridge system, and K-Pos dynamic positioning solution.

According to Kongsberg, the level of sophistication of the hydroacoustics is such that it will enable individual fish species to be identified. The hydroacoustic mapping system will produce large, real-time 3-D imaging of the seabed, with a dimension corridor 11,000m deep and up to 42km wide.

The ship will be laid out with a range of laboratories that can be flexibly configured to support differing mixes of scientific activities and objectives on each cruise, and amounting to 121m² of lab area. The modular concept not only offers considerable scope for adapting to varied and multidisciplinary requirements on each voyage, but also allows scientists to use their own equipment in combination with facilities and instruments already installed.

Overside equipment which will be operated from the vessel will include corers and deep-towed sonar and instrument assemblies, as well as the Isis deep-diving ROV, with an outfit of cameras, tools and manipulators to enable many diverse missions and tasks to be accomplished. The handling systems, comprising winches, cranes and gantries, will allow operations to be conducted from the ship’s starboard side and the stern.

Wärtsilä’s expertise in underwater-radiated noise (URN) abatement measures, and the operator’s experience with the Wärtsilä plant delivered to the RRSJames Cook, had a fundamental bearing on the selection of propulsion equipment supplier for the new RRS Discovery.

The scope of Wärtsilä’s latest contract includes four 8L20 engine-driven main gensets for power and propulsion, two main propulsion azimuth thrusters, one retractable bow thruster, and a complete, Low Loss Concept (LLC) diesel-electric system. The vessel has additionally been specified with a Tees Gill bow jet thruster.

The main thrusters will be Ice Class 1D-compliant, and will be designed specifically to meet tough criteria relating to URN. The measures entail modification of the shank and pod to create a more hydrodynamic shape, and the use of a special form of fixed pitch propeller adapted to the vessel’s wake field. In addition, the gensets will have double elastic mountings so as to minimise the transmission of vibration to the ship’s structure.

Each of the Wärtsilä eight-cylinder L20 medium-speed engines in the main genset aggregates is rated at approximately 1,550kW. Through the LLC 2,500/1,250kVA transformers, energy will be delivered to a pair of Wärtsilä 2,200kW DC propulsion motors. Each of the main azimuth thrusters specified incorporates a five-bladed, 3.6m-diameter fixed-pitch propeller and can be independently rotated through 360°. In the forward section, the 1,350kW retractable thruster will be in close proximity to the 1,700kW jet thruster.

The ship’s DP capability is particularly apposite to ROV deployment, given the need for all-weather, precise station-keeping during such operations.

The multidisciplinary nature of the capabilities and resources that will be incorporated in the new RRS Discovery contrasts with the more limited scope of some other countries’ oceanographic vessels. This is in keeping with UK research philosophy, whereby it is felt that there are vital interrelationships between the different scientific fields of ocean exploration. A role and involvement in each is seen to be of national interest,while also affording increased opportunities for use of ship time and capacity by the international scientific community.

The total project cost of bringing the new vessel into service is being provided by a combination of funding from NERC and the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Principal Particulars – RRS Discovery

Length oa 99.70m
Length bp 88.80m
Breadth 18.0m
Depth to main deck 7.40m
Depth to upper deck 10.20m
Draught max 6.50m
Gross tonnage 6,000gt approx
Propulsion Diesel-electric
Main diesel generators 4 x 1,550kW
Propulsion motors/main thrusters 2 x 2,200kW
Bow tunnel thruster 1,700kW
Bow retractable thruster 1,350kW
Speed max 15 knots
Speed cruising 12 knots
Endurance 50 days
Crew complement 24
Scientists/technicians 28
Design Skipsteknisk ST-344
Class Lloyd’s Register


Single and multibeam echosounder surveys
Integrated data logging
Seismic surveys
ROV(remotely-operated vehicle) operations
Clean seawater sampling
CTD(conductivity, temperature and depth) surveys
Deepwater coring, trawling and towing


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