This article first appeared in MAKE Volume 38, on page 26.
Antarctica breaks things. Stuff that should be bulletproof just dies, and the nearest replacement part is more than 2,000 miles away, on a much warmer and more civilized continent. During my six trips to Antarctica (2001–2006) as part of a team prototyping alternative power designs, we quickly learned it was mission critical to travel with a full set of tools and a full set of spares.
Four of my deployments were to various locations in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, so called because there has been no appreciative precipitation for the past 25 million years. In these remote field camps, you have only what you’ve brought with you, or requisitioned, and Murphy’s Law is more than just bad luck — it’s the way of life.
So you’re always fixing things, or realizing you have to do something you never planned for back at home, like coming up with ways to calibrate your loads on a generator without any form of digital voltmeter handy (e.g., 60W light bulb in a 120V circuit = 0.5A purely resistive load, if you can actually find a lightbulb). Or filing down a screwdriver to make it a hex wrench. Happens every day.
I once fixed a diver’s lifeline with a Leatherman and black electrical tape so he could complete a dive under a glacier (those guys were really brave).The line held, the diver made it back alive, and the autonomous undersea camera team member Jeff Blair had designed and built back home was secured in the sea 90 feet under the ice. The camera, dubbed ROMEO (for “remotely operable underwater micro-environmental observatory”), spent an entire year recording pictures of sea life for biologist Dr. Sam Bowser, providing the first ever winter pics of Antarctica’s underwater world.
Producing what we now call “green power” for various science programs on the ice was ostensibly the purpose of our small team. Our team leader, Dr. Tony Hansen, was an atmospheric scientist who invented a device called the Aethalometer to measure airborne particulates, and his premise was that if scientists could power their equipment without polluting the air they were trying to study, the data would be more accurate.
Most lab gear for use in North America requires a 110V 60Hz source. Your typical atmospheric scientist isn’t overly concerned with where that power comes from. When he plans his data collection expedition, he requisitions a helicopter, tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, food — all the requirements to sustain life. Finally, at some point, he requisitions a 30kW diesel generator to power his vacuum apparatus and spectroscopy gear, never once imagining that the diesel exhaust spewed by the generator creates a massive Heisenberg effect. You become what you are measuring.
Any data he collects is measured against the massive chemical noise introduced by his generator. So you have this huge DC offset (to use an electrical term) to the data, and any small signals are completely covered.
So we mocked up a device Dr. Hansen called a TAISU (transportable autonomous instrumentation support unit)that generated a continuous 50W all summer long via solar, and even more via wind. Along the way we discovered we had some power to spare at times, so we added various remote webcams. We wound up creating the first 801.11 network in the Taylor Valley by putting a Cisco wireless access point and some high-gain antennas on the TAISU, thereby linking scientists with the main U.S. government network through McMurdo Station. Literally, scientists could open their laptops in a tent and order new hiking boots from REI.
We had live cams, which could be accessed by the general public, but they got shut down for two reasons. Reason 1: After 9/11, Homeland Security didn’t like the fact that live data was being sent from a government network to the civilian world for any reason at all. Forget the fact that the bandwidth to the Mars Observer was higher than we could get from an actual spot on planet Earth — security is security. So you can no longer get live pictures from our green-powered network. (There are others who duplicated the concept but went to Iridium as the backbone instead of the government network. Those devices still transmit, but at a terribly reduced bandwidth.) Reason 2: No scientist — or anyone, for that matter — wants to work under the prying microscope of an active webcam.
Our team built a number of other devices for the scientific community. Dr. Blair designed and deployed an autonomous camera that was used by scientists to observe a penguin colony that had been stranded, having had their access to the sea cut off by a giant iceberg. Blair’s cameras, both Penguin Cam and ROMEO, were standard Sony security cameras housed in specially designed acrylic casings. We used PIC microcontrollers to both modulate power consumption and drive the cameras through either network control or through a preprogrammed set of shots, and then stored the pictures on a memory card. Our philosophy was always to use standard off-the-shelf parts. We designed and constructed the devices in our homes, and then had the utter thrill of watching them deployed in places as remote and hostile (sometimes) as the surface of Mars.
We built and deployed a miniature version of the TAISU box, which was designed to be tossed out of aircraft with a payload of a scientific instrument. The device would communicate back to “the world” through an automated low-bandwidth (300-baud) Iridium modem connection.
The last thing we tried, in 2006, was to develop a means to power a remote sensor through the long and cold Antarctic winter. Unlike planetary probes, which can be powered with small nukes, we had to figure a way to keep something warm and running with off-the-shelf material. Tony eventually settled on using standard organic PCM (phase-changing material) paraffin, which we heated and poured inside a large Dewar flask used to contain liquid nitrogen in laboratories. We placed the instruments into this inert liquid and then buried it in the ice near the South Pole Station. The instruments (simple temperature and power consumption meters) ran for about 6 months of the 9-month winter season before dying. We were heading back to the drawing board when our program ended.
I haven’t been back to the ice since then. Dr. Hansen continues to work on polar projects as well as his own carbon-sensing company. Jeff Blair has started his own company doing various forms of instrumentation.
But the maker spirit lives on in Antarctica. Our colleagues on the ice have designed and built remarkable things: underwater ROVs with cameras and sensor technologies that are small enough to slip through narrow holes in the ice, devices to track the large icebergs that are calving from the continent, and sensors to pick up the gaseous NOx components that come from melting ice.
All of those things get their start in someone’s garage or small lab. Very few maker thrills can beat watching a helicopter deploy the device you built on a remote hilltop in Antarctica, while the soldering iron burns on your hands are still healing.