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British Antarctic Survey Tests AI Weather Routing For Ice

Cruise ship Le Commandant charcot with research vessel Sir David Attenborough in ice
The icebreaking cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot clears a path for the research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough,

Published Nov 14, 2022 11:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

Weather routing tools are commonplace for oceangoing merchant vessels, but they are not generally designed with ice in mind. Researchers with the British Antarctic Survey are working to fill this gap for their organization's own specialized needs, which center on safe and efficient navigation in the remote reaches of the Southern Ocean. 

The BAS AI Lab is designing an AI-enabled route planning tool to recommend that fastest, most fuel-efficient routes in polar waters, considering ice, surface conditions and weather. It will be tested this season aboard the research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough (though the master and watch officers will still make the final decisions on navigation). 

“I’m particularly excited to see how it performs around ice. There are many systems out there that can give weather routing in open ocean but this tool is unique by adding the capability to consider ice, allowing us to reduce our fuel usage and environmental impact during the field season," said Capt. Will Whatley, the master of the RRS Sir David Attenborough. 

The new tool draws on existing forecasts and data sets, and it updates continuously. Its purpose is broader than day-to-day navigation: the researchers envision it as a tool to efficiently plan seasonal routes, up to months in advance. The team plans to refine the model with real-world fuel consumption data from the ship, and may eventually integrate science mission and logistics tasks into the tool as well. 

The route planner is part of BAS' goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. “The key driver here is to create something that reduces the ship’s carbon emissions and makes our science more efficient. We’re really excited about this open-source project which we think will be of value to all ships operating in the polar oceans," said Prof. Maria Fox of the BAS AI Lab.

RRS Sir David Attenborough is a Polar Class 4 research vessel designed to support the BAS' research and resupply missions below the 60th parallel. After a well-publicized naming contest, she was delivered in late 2020, and she made her maiden voyage to the research station at Rothera in late 2021.