Voyage of Discovery

-- FROM THE FULL PICTURE MAGAZINE -- Vicente Carrasco, Sales Manager at Kongsberg Maritime's Subsea Department in Spain, has been following the contract for the construction of a remarkable oceanographic research vessel that will provide a state-of-the-art platform for researchers to investigate some of the world's most pressing environmental issues.

The hi-tech wonder is the result of collaboration between leading scientists, ship designers, a shipbuilder and technologists from the UK, Norway and Spain. When we meet Carrasco, he had just left the Freire Shipyard in Vigo, Northern Spain where the vessel's first module is now on the slipway. His colleagues have already begun engineering, production and planning of the comprehensive integrated systems package that will be the ‘brains behind the brains' aboard the ship. Freire has been contracted to construct the RRS Discovery, a floating mega-laboratory around a hundred metres in length and 18 metres wide, by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), a leading UK research agency.

World's most advanced

The RRS Discovery is designed to be the world's most advanced multirole oceanographic vessel. As an enthusiastic Carrasco explains: "RRS Discovery will be able to operate worldwide, from tropics to ice edge, and provide a superbly equipped platform for researchers to address some of the world's most pressing environmental issues."

Capable of working in high sea-states, it will complement the work of NERC's other multi-role research vessel, the RRS James Cook. The vessel will be packed with 75 million euros worth of state-of-the-art technology for investigating the oceans' role in climate change, mapping sea bottom terrains and exploring unique and undiscovered ecosystems across the planet.

NERC Chief Executive, Professor Alan Thorpe, underlines the new ship's importance for the scientific community: "The RRS Discovery will enable researchers to make measurements of the oceans leading to vital evidence regarding climate change, marine ecosystems and underwater earthquakes and landslides, which will, in turn, support our mission to understand the role of the oceans in the Earth system. I am very pleased that UK science will continue to have vital world-class facilities well into the future."

Hi-tech integration

A suite of cutting-edge hydro acoustic instruments is the largest delivery in an integrated package of Kongsberg Maritime technology (including hydrographic, fishery research, geophysics, navigation, Dynamic Positioning and CCTV systems) that the RRS Discovery is being fitted with. Their benefits are many, as Carrasco explains: "The hydro acoustics are advanced enough to identify individual fish species; the manoeuvring system uses dynamic positioning, allowing the vessel to remain in exactly the same spot when underwater vehicles or sensors are deployed. And the hydro acoustic mapping system produces large real-time 3D imaging of the seabed, with a dimension corridor 11,000 metres deep and up to 42 kilometres wide."

Although Kongsberg Maritime has provided systems for many advanced research vessels, the RRS Discovery is in a class of its own with regard to complexity and systems integration: "It has involved lots of advanced engineering," says Vicente. "The 121-square-metres of laboratory has space for up to 28 scientists. In dialogue with NERC, we have created intuitive interfaces that allow flexible graphic presentation of research data – so it's hardly a standard delivery." In close co-operation with NERC, high levels of integration have been developed across the entire package. "We have become more than a systems supplier for RRS Discovery, through working closely with the shipyard and NERC during the entire project," comments Vicente. "We are providing the dedicated project management service that this type of project demands."

The collaboration between NERC and Kongsberg Maritime to develop and integrate systems for RRS Discovery is an exciting process for Carrasco and his colleagues: "NERC is a highly advanced organisation with highly specific needs; they represent the sort of challenge that brings out the best in us... that focuses everyone on win-win knowledge development."

Kongsberg Maritime can deliver high-level integration because it is the only supplier with a full portfolio of maritime systems, from bridge navigation to biomass monitoring: "The combination of our integration experience and the interoperability of our systems gives a shipyard complete confidence in our ability to deliver," continues Carrasco.

Multi-disciplinary collaboration

Along with this focus on total solution delivery, the project also requires multidisciplinary strength and reach, with people on the ground in both the UK and Spain. Kongsberg Maritime sales divisions, along with their local offices in the UK and Spain, have worked closely together to ensure success.

"We hold the reigns at the shipyard in Spain and also collaborate with our units in Aberdeen and Norway due to the CCTV camera equipment part of the delivery," explains Carrasco. "My counterpart in the UK, Peter Bennett, and his team take care of first-hand contact with NERC."

"In conjunction with technically oriented organisations like NERC, we have developed a wealth of knowledge on research systems and integration," adds Bennett, who is Kongsberg Maritime Ltd's Sales Manager Hydrography (UK and Ireland). "Our experience from previous projects and close partnership with NERC will ensure that the RRS Discovery becomes a highly sophisticated and effective tool for scientific research."

Kongsberg also has a solid collaboration track record with both the Freire Shipyard and Skipsteknisk AS in Norway, the designers of the RRS Discovery. Freire has more than a century of experience in building hi-tech research, offshore, merchant and fishing vessels. A leader in the design of sophisticated and noise-reduced research vessels, Skipsteknisk also designed Discovery's sister ship, the RRS James Cook.

As Carrasco explains, "Hull design is important for good vessel hydrodynamics, which is vital for avoiding impairing performance of the onboard hydro acoustics systems."

A future view

The RRS Discovery is being built as a high technology replacement for NERC's Royal Research Ship, also named Discovery, which has been in service since the early 1960s. The new vessel will be operated by NERC's National Marine Facilities Sea Systems, based at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton, on behalf of the UK science community.

Although eager to get back to the project, Carrasco takes a moment to look ahead: "This project points to the fact that the research vessel sector seems to be heading for a boom, both due to the peak oil situation, the rise in climatic research and the need to do subsea research prompted by recent earthquakes and tsunamis," he concludes.

Hi-tech delivery

Kongsberg Maritime technology and systems integration delivery contract: NOK 34 million.


  • Hydrography – Deepwater Multibeam EM122 (1ºx1º), medium water wideband Multibeam EM710 (2ºx2º), single-beam EA600 and for geophysics applications, sub-bottom profiler SBP120
  • Fishery Research – Simrad EK60 scientific multi-frequency echosounder
  • Integration – K-Sync synchronising unit
  • Navigation – K-Bridge Integrated Bridge System
  • Dynamic Positioning – K-Pos and C-Joy with DP1 (AM)
  • Video – Marine CCTV system

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

  • The UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences.
  • Coordinates research projects on issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth.
  • Receives around GBP 400 million a year from UK Government's science budget, which is used to fund independent research and training in environmental sciences.