Arctic / Antarctic / Alpine

Ice Planet Update: Digital Twin Of RRS Discovery Shows How Antarctic Research Began

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
University of Southampton
July 8, 2024
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Ice Planet Update: Digital Twin Of RRS Discovery Shows How Antarctic Research Began
Digital Twin Of RRS Discovery — University of Southampton

A project led by the University of Southampton has created a ‘digital twin’ of RRS Discovery – the pioneering research vessel that first took explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica.

Using state-of-the-art technology, the team have created a highly accurate 3D representation of the entire ship, delivering exciting new insights into how the ship was built and used, and informing vital restoration work on the vessel.

Dr Michael Grant, from Coastal and Offshore Archaeological Research Services at the University of Southampton, said: “This digital twin provides an amazing opportunity for more people to explore this fascinating ship and learn about its history in a completely new way – including areas of the ship that cannot be accessed by the public.

“Through this we can obtain even greater insights into the lives of the people who explored the Antarctic over a century ago, providing the foundation for much of the ocean and climate science being undertaken today.”

The work is part of a fascinating project to digitise the Discovery Collections, creating highly detailed 3D scans of historic objects associated with the Discovery’s Antarctic expeditions between 1901 and 1931. The project will bring together dispersed collections of objects, scientific samples, documents, and the ship itself, which currently reside in several notable UK Institutions, including Dundee Heritage Trust’s Discovery Point Museum, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) and National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

Creating the digital twin

The team undertook extensive digital recordings using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and laser scanners. The laser scanners allowed the team to precisely capture the shape, dimensions, and details of the ship. This was supplemented with LiDAR and photogrammetry surveys, resulting in the creation of a highly accurate 3D representation of the entire ship, both inside and outside.

LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, involves sending out laser pulses and measuring the time it takes for those pulses to bounce back from surrounding objects. This data is then used to create precise three-dimensional maps of the surveyed area. Photogrammetry involves analyzing overlapping images of a subject taken from different angles to deduce the size, shape, and position of objects within the images.

Dr Felix Pedrotti , from the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute at the University of Southampton, said: “With the rise of new technologies, such as laser scanners and UAVs, we can now create highly accurate digital twins. These digital replicas offer invaluable insights into the RRS Discovery, including its structures and layouts.”

Exploded view of the digital twin

The UK’s pioneering Antarctic ship

The Royal Research Ship (RRS) Discovery was built in Dundee and launched in 1901. It was the first ship in the world purpose-built for scientific research in ice-packed Antarctica, providing the ideal vessel for the first official British exploration of the region since the voyage of James Clark Ross sixty years earlier (1839–1843).

The 1901 expedition launched the careers of some of the leading figures in what was to become known as the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’, including Robert Falcon Scott (who led the expedition), Ernest Shackleton, Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly. The RRS Discovery is the sole surviving UK ship from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which lasted between the end of the 19th century and the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition of 1921–1922.

The expedition carried out scientific research and geographical exploration in what was then largely an untouched continent. It was seen as a trailblazer for later ventures and a landmark in British Antarctic exploration history, with many notable discoveries including the Cape Crozier emperor penguin colony; snow-free dry valleys in the western mountains; the Antarctic plateau (upon which the South Pole is located); evidence that the Ice Barrier was a floating ice shelf; and the discovery of many new marine species.

Discovery in Australia John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland via Wikipedia

Following further Antarctic expeditions in 1925 and 1929, as well as an extended period as a Sea Scout training ship based in London between 1931-1979, RRS Discovery returned to Dundee in 1986, where it has resided as a multi-award-winning visitor attraction operated by Dundee Heritage Trust, attracting over 80,000 visitors a year.

Dr Jack Pink, from the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton, said: “RRS Discovery is significant not only as the ship that first took Commander Robert Falcon Scott to the Antarctic but also as Britain’s first bespoke scientific research vessel.

“The ship was foundational to the UK’s approach to science and research and the choices made in its design and construction influenced Arctic and Antarctic research for decades after its first voyage. The results of the scanning work we have done allow us to explore the ship and its people in a way that has never been done before, to study the entire ship in millimetric detail, informing our understanding of its preservation and allowing us to ask questions about its design, use, and the modifications made throughout its life. We can now explore how different crews lived and worked on the ship and understand the work they did through an entirely new perspective – that of the ship itself.”

Conservation work

The project provides essential information for the Dundee Heritage Trust (DHT) team as they progress the restoration of the ship. The age of this ship means that conservation is a necessary ongoing process, with the ship currently deteriorating in multiple areas, including parts of the internal hull, bow and propeller shaft. A £1.4m grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund has allowed the Trust to begin vital conservation work as part of a first phase of the Discovery’s full restoration.

Mel Ruth Oakley, Curator at DHT, said: “The opportunity to take part in this project is invaluable to Dundee Heritage Trust. As we embark on a major conservation project, this digital scan of the ship will provide us with a detailed record of the ship before the work. This is incredibly helpful in determining the conservation work we undertake. The scan can also be used by researchers and enjoyed by our visitors to provide a virtual tour of the ship.

“We are also very excited to have our collections digitally scanned along with the sister collections at NOC and SPRI. This project will bring these objects together through these digital tools – an amazing resource for anyone interested in Discovery’s story of science and exploration.”

100 Years of Discoveries

The production of this new digital model of the ship coincides with major centenary celebrations for the RRS Discovery. In 2023, the ship celebrated 100 years since her purchase by the British Government and the start of her refit, ready for the Discovery Oceanographic Expeditions as the first ever Royal Research Ship (RRS).

Next year marks the centenary of the first Discovery Oceanographic Expedition in Antarctic waters, between 1925-27, where further important scientific breakthroughs were made, including a greater understanding of whaling, the ecosystems of the great whales and saw the beginnings of conservation thinking.

Both centenary celebrations involve the current RRS Discovery, which was built in 2012 and is based at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. This modern research vessel continues the proud tradition of its ancestral namesake, serving as a reminder of the UK’s world-leading ocean research capabilities and long-term commitment to scientific ocean research.

The new digital twin of the original RRS Discovery will play an important role in the 2025 centenary celebrations, providing new and exciting opportunities for engagement, education and accessibility to this important ship.

Dr Tammy Horton, Senior Research Scientist and manager of the Discovery Collections at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, said: “This digital model marks the beginning of an exciting project to bring together the stories of the RRS Discovery, which will ensure all the artefacts and findings of those early expeditions are available to all, enhancing our understanding of the work undertaken by the ship then and how this research continues today.”

The project is led by the University of Southampton, in partnership with Dundee Heritage Trust, the National Oceanography Centre and the Scott Polar Research Institute. The work is funded by the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Environmental and Life Sciences Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF).

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