The RRS Discovery

The RRS Discovery

The NOC operates two world-class research ships, owned by UK Research and Innovation, with state-of-the-art capabilities. The newest research ship and the fourth ship of its name, RRS Discovery is a multidisciplinary ship, specifically designed for the challenges of 21st century oceanography.

RRS Discovery was designed by A.S. Skipsteknisk and was delivered to the National Oceanography Centre on the 8 July 2013. Fitted with the most up-to-date and high-tech instruments and equipment, it is ideal for oceanic exploration.

With the ability to travel to remote and extreme oceanic environments, RRS Discovery is highly sophisticated and has the ability to operate in high sea states (up to sea-state 6). The ship comes with sub-bottom profiling and multi-beam equipment for mapping the seabed, while her dynamic positioning capability means that Remotely Operated Vehicles can be used. Her wide range of cranes and over-side gantries, with associated winches and wires, will allow many different types of equipment to be deployed from the ship. These facilities and the many more listed below help support the marine science community as it undertakes research of national and global importance.

Specifications and capabilities

  • Single and multi-beam echosounder surveys
  • Integrated data logging
  • Seismic surveys
  • Clean seawater sampling
  • Remotely operated vehicle operations
  • CTD surveys
  • Deep-water coring, trawling, dredging and instrument towing


Handling systems

The RRS Discovery is fitted with a range of handling systems including a comprehensive suite of winches, allowing operations to be conducted from both the starboard side of the ship and the stern. Provision of two separate systems on the starboard side enable both to be rigged with working cables simultaneously, which will facilitate swapping of differing operations between the two deployment points seamlessly. The permanently fitted winch suite is located in a purpose built winch room on the main deck of the ship where the wire is fed up to the gantries on deck. Winches on the research ship are used for a multitude of operations including:

  • To lower sensor packages such as conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) sensors through the water column;
  • To lower coring systems to the seabed to obtain samples from the seabed and sub-seabed;
  • Towing of platforms such as the Towed Ocean Bottom Instrument (TOBI) for seabed mapping;
  • Towing of undulating sensor platform to measure water properties while underway;
  • Towing of deep-sea trawling and net systems.


The ship contains a range of laboratory spaces that can be flexibly configured to support multiple scientific activities on each expedition. A wide variety of scientific activities can be conducted concurrently on board RRS Discovery, as the research vessel is sub-divided into ultraclean, clean, normal, and temperature-controlled areas, with sufficient flexibility to be used for multiple needs. ‘Dry’ labs are used for housing electronic systems such as the user-interface to the hydroacoustic suite in the main laboratory. Some labs, for example, the deck lab, can be configured either as ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ depending on the nature of the science being undertaken. Specialist laboratory needs are often provided through the use of containerised laboratories. In total, the RRS Discovery has 389m2 of laboratory space, as well as positions for up to seven 20-foot container laboratories on deck. The ship also contains a substantial scientific stores area, including areas for frozen and refrigerated samples.

Working decks

RRS Discovery’s working decks are designed with flexibility in mind, with deck areas uncluttered by fittings and as open as possible for fitting of a wide variety of equipment. RRS Discovery has working deck space of 432m2 and slots for 18× 20-foot containers.

Permanently fitted sensors and instrumentation

The RRS Discovery is configured with a suite of state-of-the-art sensors, as well as a modern computerized data logging and distribution system.

Hydroacoustic suite

The hydroacoustic suite is one of the most important components of the RRS Discovery’s sensor outfit. These sensors are mounted in two main areas: the large bottom mapping multibeam echo-sounder transducer is fitted in a novel design bottom ‘blister’, while a range of other acoustic instruments are fitted within two drop keels.

Bridge equipment

RRS Discovery is one of the most sophisticated research ships afloat and has been designed and commissioned with a full suite of modern navigation and communications systems, including a dynamic positioning system.

Task System RRS Discovery RRS James Cook
Communications Stabilised C Band V-Sat

Standard 256 Kb/s

Enhanced 512 Kb/s

Standard 256 Kb/s

Enhanced 512 Kb/s

Sat B Sailor 250 Broadband NERA
Sat C Sailor Sailor
Global Maritime Distress and Safety System Sailor 6222 plus other items Sailor DT4646E
Portable Iridium Iridium
Navigation Integrated bridge Kongsberg K-Bridge Kongsberg BL10
Echo sounder 1 Skipper GDS102 50kHz and 200KHz Kongsberg EA600
Echo sounder 2 Skipper GDS102 50kHz and 200KHz Kongsberg EA500

Kongsberg S-Band 30kW

Kongsberg X-Band 25kW

GPS 1 MX512 Kongsberg MX420/8
GPS 2 MX512 Applanix POSMV
GPS 3 Applanix PosMV 320 Ashtech ADU5
GPS 4 Seatex Seapath 300 DPS116
GPS 5 Fugro Marinestar 9200 Seatex Seapath 200
GPS 6 C-Nav 2050 -
Gyro 3× Navigat X Mk 1 Sperry C.Plath Navigat X Mk1
Chart system Kongsberg K-Planning Kongsberg SeaMap10
Speed log 1 Skipper DL 850 Kongsberg Doppler DL850
Speed log 2 Skipper DL 850 Chernikeef Aquaprobe Mk5
Voyage data recorder Maritime Black Box MBB Kongsberg MBB
Automatic Identification System Kongsberg AIS200 Kongsberg AIS200
High resolution picture transmission Dartcom Dartcom
USBL 1 Sonardyne Sonardyne
USBL 2 Sonardyne Sonardyne
Dynamic positioning - Kongsberg K-POS DP-22 Kongsberg SDP11


The ship is configured with a novel azimuth thruster propulsion system configuration compared to a conventional fixed shafts/propellers and rudders. The thrusters can be independently rotated through 360° which will make the vessel extremely manoeuvrable. This configuration has also been selected with fuel efficiency in mind, while the ship is also some 10 metres longer (and slightly narrower) than the RRS James Cook, the additional length also contributes to fuel efficiency.

RRS Discovery comes with a range of in-built equipment that scientists will use on an expedition enabling samples to be collected and measurements to be taken.


Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCPs) are a type of sonar device measuring velocity (speed and direction) of the water by sending out a ‘ping’ sound wave, then measuring the return time and frequency. By combining several sonar transmitters and receivers with amplifiers and signal processing electronics or software, ADCPs are able to calculate the speed and direction that the water is moving using the Doppler effect. Speed and direction can be calculated over a range of depths, giving a two dimensional profile.

Both NOC ships are fitted with 75kHz and 150kHz ADCPs. The 75kHz ADCP can typically measures currents down to a depth of 560-700m, while the 150kHz will typically operate to a maximum range of 375-400m.

Air and water sampling

Air and water samples are continuously taken during a research expedition. Information about surface temperature and sea conditions are collected for scientists to create models of the climate. Surfmet is the Surface Water and Meteorological monitoring system consisting of two parts: one takes seawater from a few metres below the surface and passes this water through a series of instruments that measure the different characteristics of the water at that near the surface; the other consists of meteorological instruments located high up the forward mast. (~10m above sea level)

Surface water measurements include: salinity, measured by a thermosalinograph; chloropyll, measured by a fluorometer and particulate matter in the water column; using a transmissometer.

Air measurements include: temperature and humidity using a sensor, wind speed using an anemometer and the air pressure using a barometric pressure sensor. Light readings are also taken using light meters measuring both the total solar energy and the photosynthetically active radiation.

Data logging

Each research ship has a data logging system to record multiple pieces of data including GPS positions, meteorological measurements such as temperature, humidity and air pressure or sonars measuring water depth, simultaneously. The high cost of running a research ship means that these measurements must be recorded reliably so that the valuable data is not lost. The data logger records the data generated by each instrument. It also records the time that each data item was generated at. The data logger synchronises its time with GPS satellites, which gives a time accurate to a couple of milliseconds. Current data loggers are PCs running reliable industrial grade operating systems with RAID storage disks. The data loggers save the data in a format that is well documented so that scientists and the British Oceanographic Data Centre can read the data.


Echo-sounders are types of sonar devices that use sound to measure distances underwater. They are used to find objects in the water column such as fish or bubbles from sea vents or to calculate the depth of the water. An echo-sounder works by transmitting a pulse of sound directly downwards from the ship. Once the pulse bounces off the seabed it travels back to the ship. Using the length of time it takes for the pulse to return, along with the known speed of sound in water, the depth can then be calculated. Multi-beam echo-sounders are used to map large areas of the sea bed from the ship using an array of transducers and signal processing electronics.

Ultra Short Base Line

Ultra Short Base Line (USBL) is a technique using sound waves to measure the position of an object that is underwater relative to the ship. It is important when using remotely operated vehicles, towed vehicles and drills. The underwater vehicle is fitted with a USBL beacon, which is able to detect pulses from the transceiver on the ship’s hull and can then return the pulse. Using both the bearing and the return time of the pulse the transceiver is able to calculate the position of the vehicle to a high level of accuracy.

Satellite Internet and Phones

RRS Discovery is fitted with a C-band VSat antenna which is subscribed to a time-division-multiple-access (TDMA) internet connection service over satellite. This provides the ship with a guaranteed download speed of 1.5 Mbps (~183kB/s), a guaranteed upload speed of 1.5 Mbps (~183 kB/s) and four telephone lines when a stable link has been established. The TDMA allows bursts of up to 10 Mbps, depending on whether there are other ships using the same satellite. The ship is also fitted with a pair of Thrane&Thrane Cobham Sailor 500 antennae which provide up to 256 kbps (~32kB/s) internet and a satellite phone.

IT Provision on NMF-Operated Ships

Winch systems

Scientific winches are used to:

  • Lower sensor packages such as Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) sensors through the water column;
  • Lower coring systems to the seabed to obtain samples from the seabed and sub-seabed;
  • Tow platforms such as the Towed Ocean Bottom Instrument (TOBI) for seabed mapping;
  • Tow undulating sensor platform to measure water properties while underway;
  • Tow deep-sea trawling and net systems.

The permanently fitted winches live in the bottom of the ship, where the wire is fed up to the gantries on deck. The table below shows the types and properties of the permanently fitted winches found on our ships.

Task Wire construction Wire length (m) Wire dia­meter (mm) Safe working load (T) Mean breaking load (T) Weight in water (kg⋅km−1) Operation Pull (T) Speed (ms−1)
Coring Steel 7,000 16.5 11 18.56 780 Direct pull 11 2.0
Trawling Tapered steel 8,300 14.5 11.5 13.00 638 Direct pull


(first layer)

4,350 16.5   18.10 780
2,350 18.00 12.5 20.90 1,133
Deep tow Steel armoured electro / optical cable for high data transmission 10,000 0.68" (~17.3) 11 18.14 806 Shared traction winch with level winds for each storage drum 11 2.0
Deep coring Plasma rope 8,000 0.875" (~22.0) 30 75.00


Specific gravity = 0.98

20 2.0
Standard CTD Steel armoured 8,000 0.45" (~11.43) 5 8.39 417 Traction winch with level wind 5.0 2.0

Life on board a research ship

This video gives an insight into life on board a state-of-the-art research ship (RRS Discovery) and shows the challenges of undertaking world class marine science at sea.