Research vessels and survey vessels are often spoken of interchangeably, but they are not quite the same thing, in terms of the purposes they are used for. Research vessels are the broader category of the two, and they are generally used to carry out some kind of information-gathering while at sea. They are generally designed and built with their specific research purpose in mind, and they are also constructed so as to withstand the roughest weather that might be encountered while at sea.
Earliest research vessels
You might think research vessels are a modern invention which have only recently come into vogue for their present purposes. However, the first known use for a research vessel actually dates all the way back to the mid-1700s when the famous world traveler Capt. James Cook received a commission to study the planetary movements while sailing the Pacific Ocean. It may not have officially been designated as a research vessel at the time, but the characteristics of the project assigned certainly qualifies it as a research vessel. That makes Capt. Cook the first commander of a research vessel in world history.
Main uses for research vessels
There are many different types of research that these vessels might possibly carry out, beginning with fisheries research, polar research, and naval or defense research. They might also conduct oceanographic research or oil exploration, to identify locations which might hold large reserves of oil which could be retrieved. One of the areas where research vessels are most frequently employed is in polar research, because understanding the changes which are currently occurring at the poles is of vital importance today.
Ships conducting polar research are usually outfitted with special armor that allows them to break through sheets of ice when necessary, and they are also built to tolerate the extreme conditions which might be encountered in such cold regions of the earth. Another very common task of research ships is that of studying marine life in the various water zones around the planet. These ships too, must be outfitted with special equipment which aids the process of studying underwater life forms.
Oil and gas exploration is an important function for research vessels, because new sources of these vital resources are constantly needed, as other supplies begin to dwindle. This kind of research can identify where the largest reserves of crude oil and gas might be, and also helps to pinpoint where the best location would be to install an ocean-going oil rig to extract these reserves.
Oceanography is another large area of research which these vessels are commonly used for. In this area, tidal conditions and oceanic weather are studied, monitoring the seismologic patterns of sub-marine geography, as well as the unique features of all oceanic waters. The commercial fishing industry also makes use of research vessels for the purpose of determining the health of various fish populations in the oceans of the world, and to find out how they are impacted by climate changes, intense fishing practices, and other factors.
A survey vessel is generally not equipped to carry out the same kind of broad functions that a research vessel would be. The primary function of a survey vessel is to map the bottom of the ocean floor, the benthic zone, the full water column, and in some cases the ocean surface, with a view toward general oceanography or hydrography.
Survey ships are commonly equipped with echo-sounding technology so that water depth can be measured, and any navigational hazards can be identified before ships at sea become endangered. Survey ships are often equipped with smaller boats termed launches, which can be lowered into the water for shallow-water surveying. The NOAA maintains a fleet of survey ships, which it uses for hydrography and ocean-mapping.