DISCOVER Magazine #7

Australian Research Vessel

Published in category: Innovation

With nearly 70 years of experience operating in the harsh conditions of the Antarctic in 2016, the Australian Government took the decision to invest $1.9 billion in a new, once-in-a-generation Antarctic Supply Research Vessel, which is set to serve the country for the next three decades.

This very special icebreaker is at the heart of Australia’s Antarctic Strategy & 20 Year Action Plan, announced in April last year. The ASRV will be the main lifeline to resupply Australia’s three permanent research stations in Antarctica and its sub-Antarctic research station on Macquarie Island with cargo, equipment and personnel. Essentially, the 156 metre, ASRV is an icebreaker, survey vessel and resupply vessel all in one, and it will be Australia’s only icebreaking scientific research platform.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD) Modernisation Program Manager, Rob Bryson, says the AAD has been operating in the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean since 1948. And, based on this operational experience, it developed a set of requirements that it believes will ideally serve the Australian Antarctic Program.

“The new vessel is a multi-mission ship designed to sustain our geographically dispersed stations, support helicopter operations, sustain shore parties on remote islands, map the seafloor and undertake a variety of scientific activities across the Southern Ocean.

“The AAD’s project for a new ship has been running officially since 2012. We undertook an extensive study to validate our past experience with ice conditions around our three Antarctic research stations and then looked to determine what we might expect in the future. This drove the ice breaking capability that is at the core of our expectations for the new ship.”


The AAD had an extensive list of functional performance specifications that determine what the ship will be designed to accomplish. “This is made up of over 1,300 individual requirements ranging from an icebreaking capability (1.65 metres at 3 Knots) to capacity for cargo, endurance and fuel,” he adds.

On April 28th, 2016 the Australian Government signed a contract with DMS Maritime, a wholly owned subsidiary of Serco, for the delivery, operation and maintenance of the ASRV. The vessel will be built by the Damen Shipyards Group, with the engineering and project management undertaken by Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding (DSNS) in Vlissingen, the Netherlands, and the construction and outfitting of the vessel carried out at Damen Shipyards Galati, Romania. Serco will represent the AAD as a project manager but the AAD will be intimately involved during the build phase.

Mr Bryson explains that the underlying philosophy is that the ship needs to be flexible enough to adapt to change over the next 30 years. “What this means is that we went for a more modularized approach to the science spaces with a preference for containerized laboratory spaces rather than fixed labs. This allows us to adapt the ship for the science questions that need to be answered in the future.”

The new ship gives the AAD a substantial increase in cargo capacity, with an almost threefold increase in container carrying capacity between this ship and the current vessel, the RSV Aurora Australis, as well as much improved icebreaking ability.



The new ASRV has a 1,200 tonnes cargo capacity below decks in up to 96 TEU. Additionally, it can carry 14 TEU and six 10-ft containers on the aft deck, as well as more above the helicopter hanger and in front of the helideck. This compares to just 19 containers in the holds of the existing Aurora Australis. The significant increase in cargo carrying capacity enables the AAD to resupply two stations in one voyage.

It also has increased endurance and a significantly improved environmental performance. “This is a major consideration and we have included relevant notations and requirements that are in keeping with MARPOL provisions for operations in waters above 60 degrees south,” Mr Bryson points out.

The ship also has a significantly enhanced scientific suite, which allows the AAD to probe from below the sea floor all the way up to the upper atmosphere and everything in between. Designed with 500 m2 on board laboratory and office facilities, the ASRV will host up to 32 maritime crew and as many as 116 AAD scientific personnel as well as a doctor, in climate controlled accommodation.

The ship also has two 55 tonne knuckle-boom cranes and a 15-tonne crane on the helideck and a 15-tonne, side-loading crane.


Given its unique role, the ASRV is faced with a major challenge in that one of its most important scientific functions is to study microorganisms and to map the seafloor, relying on a variety of acoustic instruments, which need a very quiet environment. With this in mind, a lot of work has gone into the design of the ship’s hull and propulsion system, to reduce noise wherever possible. And, given DSNS’s 140 years of naval experience, the yard is well equipped to build vessels with a low noise profile.

A spacious aft deck will be used for a variety of tasks including seismic mapping, operating AUVs, towing underwater cameras, deploying nets and for extracting sediment cores of up to 24 metres long, amongst other things. The aft deck will also have a capacity for fourteen TEU and six, 10-foot containers. And, as it is impossible to predict the research taking place many years down the line, eight of the containers will have services for laboratories of the future.

Seawater can be cooled as low as -1.8°C in tanks, which will be used for krill and other organisms. And scientists will be able to store samples at temperatures down to -135°C.



The ASRV will also feature a 13 metre deep, 4 metre wide moonpool. This will allow scientists to deploy conductivity, temperature and depth instruments. These can be used to collect water samples at different depths down to 6,500 metres below the surface.

Other acoustic instruments include multi-beam, bathymetric and scientific echo sounders, (8×8 metres), which can work at depths to 11,000 metres, as well as hydrophones, fishery sonars and Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers.

A truly pioneering addition, which will be deployed for the first time, is a ‘wet well’ sampling space. This is a watertight room below the water line, which has three intake pipes to the sea. Up to five tonnes of seawater per minute will be fed into the wet well, which will catch krill and jellyfish etc. Viewing tanks allow scientists to identify and collect organisms and place them in temporary aquariums.

And, given the harsh conditions the ASRV will work in, it has to be very robust, with a lot of built in redundacy.

Mr Bryson comments: “Operating in polar waters off Antarctica requires a certain degree of robustness. With this ship we have learnt a lot from past experience and ensured that critical mission systems have a very high level of redundancy. Being a single ship operation it is extremely important to have a reliable shipping service, especially when trying to keep research stations running in extreme environments.”

The vessel will be named by children this year, via a school competition. The unique project will continue up until final acceptance in April 2020.

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