Advancing Australia’s capability to harvest oceans of data
With the Tokyo Olympics just around the corner, the Olympic motto ‘faster, higher, stronger’ could aptly be applied to our Research Vessel (RV) Investigator. This athletic vessel would be at home competing in any decathlon, marathon or even weightlifting event. It offers a medal-winning capability for multidisciplinary marine research.
Let’s put the vessel on the blocks and start with a dive beneath the waterline.
Built for deep water science
The 94-metre RV Investigator is an impressive and striking sight out of water. The hull’s ruddy red anti-fouling paint contrasts starkly with the blue, green and white paint of the superstructure. Exposed are seldom seen features that make this vessel a world-class resource for marine research.
A gondola hangs underneath the bow of the ship, attached like a remora to a shark. It is packed with advanced sonar technology for high resolution mapping of the seafloor and below. In the deepest waters, one of these systems can map a strip of seafloor up to 30 km wide in a single pass. The sonar systems can also be used to locate and map shipwrecks and other heritage targets.
Seafloor mapping helps improve safety of navigation for both surface and subsurface vessels. It increases our understanding of the structure and history of the underwater geology of our region. The data we collect contributes to important national seafloor mapping programs like AusSeabed, and through it, international programs such as GEBCO and Seabed2030.
Behind the gondola, twin drop keels poke out from within the ship’s moonpool, a hole in the hull that opens directly to the ocean below. The drop keels contain an array of scientific instruments, including acoustic equipment to map fish and instruments to measure speed, direction and depth of currents. They also contain cameras and hydrophones for capturing images and sounds of life beneath the waves.
Above the waterline is a vast array of scientific equipment and infrastructure. Outside, are winches, cranes, containerised laboratories and giant radar domes that resemble soccer balls and contain weather radar and telecommunication infrastructure. Inside, the ship has 10 levels and a wide variety of laboratory spaces, including dedicated atmospheric laboratories and instruments that continuously collect atmospheric data. No wonder the ship has been called the scientific Swiss army knife of research vessels.
Delivering data to power decision making
RV Investigator has delivered more than 60 voyages since it was commissioned in December 2014. The majority have involved multiple research partners, with the vessel providing a hub for both national and international collaboration.
For the last few years, these voyages have delivered 15-20 terabytes of data each year (for comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope generates about 10 terabytes of new data per year).
A recent review identified more than 150 peer-reviewed academic papers from these research voyages. This research has delivered significant insights about our oceans and atmosphere and has helped improve our understanding of marine ecosystems and global climate. The knowledge generated is used by government, industry and academia to inform evidence-based decision making that impacts our lives and livelihoods.
The streams of data collected by RV Investigator are impressive. The vessel reaches out with scientific sensors and instruments scattered across the ship to collect data like a giant data-gathering octopus. These data help refine global ocean and climate modelling, particularly as the ship often travels to remote locations where data is rarely collected. The vessel’s atmospheric systems collect data that helps improve the accuracy of weather forecasting and, at the greater scale, our understanding and ability to predict changes in global climate.
The unique atmospheric capabilities of RV Investigator were recognised in 2018 by the World Meteorological Organisation when the vessel was accepted as the world’s first mobile Global Atmospheric Watch (GAW) station.
Putting ocean life on the map
Remember faceless fish or the bigfin squid? One of the more high-profile areas of research with RV Investigator has been biodiversity surveys of the life in our oceans. These surveys have discovered new, wonderful and weird marine life dramatically increasing our biodiversity knowledge and supporting better understanding of marine ecosystems. These studies are particularly important in poorly studied areas such as the remote and deep ocean.
Understanding species presence, diversity and abundance is vital for protecting biodiversity values and for the sustainable management of marine resources by marine park and fisheries managers, industry and the wider community.
The importance of this research was illustrated by the 2017 Sampling the Abyss voyage along Australia’s east coast. From this 30-day voyage alone, it’s estimated that more than 500 new species will be described. In fact, they have so many new species that taxonomists can’t keep up with naming them all!
This shows how little we know about life in our oceans and how much more we have to discover.
The discovery will continue on our next voyage, with Museums Victoria leading a world-first survey of marine life around the Indian Ocean Territories of Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
Advancing our national marine research capability
A key principle in the design of RV Investigator is modularity – a ‘pick-n-mix’ approach to research capability. This lets us include a wide range of research and scientific disciplines on every voyage. We also seek to encourage the inclusion of new and emerging technologies. This is vital to ensure that Australian researchers have access to the most advanced and fit-for-purpose infrastructure possible to stay at the forefront of global marine and atmospheric research.
Our Marine National Facility (MNF), operator of RV Investigator, works with the research community to identify gaps in Australia’s marine research capability and develop solutions to plug those gaps. Supporting this is our capability investment framework for the vessel, which provides a roadmap for long-term capability development.
The research capabilities of the vessel are continually evolving and we are constantly adding new equipment to enable a wider range of research. Recent additions to the vessel’s toolbox include a heavy ocean towing system, a significant capability enhancement that allows fully instrumented deployments – via fibre optic cable – of heavy towed equipment down to 6500 metres. Previously, achievable depths on the existing steel wire were 3000 metres. A deep coring system has also been added to the vessel to allow researchers to go deeper into the ocean and deeper into the history of ocean sediments and global climate. On our development horizon are enhanced deep-water research capabilities, including the addition of deep-water remotely operated vehicles (ROV).
Further supporting capability development is a dedicated technology and innovation Stream in the application process for sea time on RV Investigator. This seeks to offer the vessel to researchers as a platform for testing and early adoption of emerging and innovative technologies.
RV Investigator is still relatively young in its life cycle and expected to be in operational use until 2039. However, planning for Australia’s next national ocean research vessel is a long game and we’re already starting to think about what capabilities we might need to address the science challenges of the future.
Let’s look at what the future might hold.
Drones and automation and AI! Oh my!
We’re never standing still. Technology is continually advancing, and it’s exciting to think about what our next national ocean research vessel might look like.
Our next national ocean future research vessel could act like a scientific mother ship, deploying fleets of aerial drones and automated underwater vehicles to orbit it like satellites. Travelling high into the atmosphere and deep into the ocean, these autonomous robots could collect a wide range of data and samples, then return to the ship to download and recharge.
Research planning might also change in the future. Machine learning and an onboard ship AI could see humans collaborating with technology to deliver new ways of doing science that we haven’t even thought of yet. We’ve already seen innovation and ingenuity accelerated by necessity from COVID, with the physical hub for collaboration quickly being replaced by collaboration in the virtual space.
This offers exciting opportunities to increase participation and collaboration in science through remote science. Those without the ability to physically join a voyage are no longer excluded from directly participating in the research. Effectively, any scientist around the world could now, at any time, join a voyage virtually through the technology we have available.
This capability has the potential to change lives, not just through the research but also for the researchers involved.
We should all be excited and start thinking about the future possibilities.
RV Investigator is part of the Marine National Facility, a national facility funded by the Australian Government and operated by CSIRO on behalf of the nation.