A Research Ship for the 21st Century

Architectural design by Glosten Associates Inc.
Architectural design by Glosten Associates Inc.

OUR VIEW OF THE OCEANS IS EXPANDING RAPIDLY: Underwater gliders patrol the Pacific, moored buoys monitor hot spots and satellites view swirling currents from near-Earth orbit. But, says Clare Reimers, we still need ships to put people on the water, to conduct the kind of science that requires a human touch.

Reimers, a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, is the lead scientist in a National Science Foundation-funded project to design and build the next generation of coastal research vessels. “We’re getting a much better understanding of the ocean by combining direct observations and experiments with constant monitoring through satellites and other means,” she explains.

As chair of the Fleet-Improvement Committee of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (a nonprofit organization of 62 academic and national laboratories), Reimers has helped to make long-term plans for the nation’s academic research fleet. It includes four classes of global and intermediate ocean-going ships as well as regional and coastal vessels.

In 2010, the need for a new regional ship became acute during the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Demian Bailey was coordinating research ship activities for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) when he ran into a problem. “We needed data in near real time so we could tell vessels where to sample. We also needed it for our models of the oil plume trajectory and to provide the public with answers they were demanding,” he says. But the ships did not have that capability. Oceanographers had to make their best guesses on how to proceed.

Bailey is now the project manager for the Regional Class Research Vessel initiative at Oregon State. In addition to new sensors and more efficient energy systems, the new vessel will stream data in near real time to scientists anywhere. “We’re looking at these ships kind of like satellites,” he says. “We’re creating a new form of connectivity to shore. We call it ‘data presence.’ We’re going to be providing researchers a wide variety of high-quality, processed data in real time from the atmosphere through the water column down below the seafloor.”

Designers expect the new ship to use 15 to 30 percent less fuel than today’s vessels of comparable size, such as the Oceanus at Oregon State, which was built in 1975. While at sea, it will be able to stay in a single location — a capability known as dynamic positioning — through the use of computer controlled propulsion and satellite-based navigation.

The ship will also have state-of-the-art handling systems for deploying and recovering a wide range of oceanographic instruments and sampling devices, including remotely operated underwater vehicles that can tie to the vessel’s navigation system.

“We’ll always need ships,” Bailey adds. “We’ll always need people on the water. These ships will be very efficient, versatile and stable. That means they’re safer, and scientists can work longer. They can work when it’s rougher.”

Reimers, Bailey and their team of maritime engineers are working with Glosten Associates Inc., a naval architectural firm in Seattle. Over the next year, they plan to identify shipbuilding yards that could compete for constructing up to three of the new vessels. One will be located in Newport. The aim is to award a contract in 2017.