Freezers, hot water and hard work: Could you handle IT in Antarctica?

How the British Antarctic Survey relies on technology to make its research possible...

How the British Antarctic Survey relies on technology to make its research possible...

In the second article of a series about how technology is used in extreme environments, silicon.com finds out what tech makes the British Antarctic Survey tick.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has been leading the UK's scientific research efforts in Antarctica for more than 60 years.

From research into geology, glaciology, marine biology and meterology to the study of local lakes and wildlife, the BAS' Antarctica team are expanding scientific knowledge in difficult conditions.

Although the organisation is based in Cambridge, some of its 400 staff can spend months at a time working and living in five research bases in Antarctica and nearby South Georgia.

Along with the bases, the organisation operates two ice-strengthened ships in the Southern Ocean - the RRS James Clark Ross and RRS Ernest Shackleton - as well as running five planes.

silicon.com spoke to BAS head of technology and engineering David Blake to find out how technology supports the organisation's operations and how the BAS overcomes the challenges of working on the icy continent.

Choosing the right IT for Antarctica

Blake's team is responsible for maintaining and developing facilities across the five BAS bases, including IT but also providing fuel and power, producing water and disposing of waste.

The Halley base presents the unique challenge of being located on the Brunt ice shelf, which is moving towards the sea at a rate of 400m per year and increases in height by 1.5m per year as snow builds up on its surface. To stop the buildings being swallowed up by ice they sit on stilts that can be extended to accommodate the changing ice level.

The British Antarctic Survey Halley base

The British Antarctic Survey has five research bases in the region - including Halley, abovePhoto: British Antarctic Survey

Difficulties affecting the two ice-based facilities include high winds, snow drifts burying buildings, low humidity and high static fields, which can affect instrumentation.

Unsurprisingly, reliability is a key requirement for the BAS' technology, due to both the harsh environment and the lack of IT support on hand. On a base the size of Halley, which houses about 15 people, only one of those will be an IT specialist.

Consequently, standard PCs and off-the-shelf tech is the order of the day for the Antarctic scientists.

"Wherever we can, we buy things off the shelf - we haven't got the time, the people or the money to do anything special," Blake told silicon.com.

"We would try to use stuff that...

...we've used before which we actually know works in the field. We tend to know what works and what doesn't work - we try to keep to what we've used in the past," he added.

BAS needs to ensure the systems are consistent wherever they're located, so staff who work in different bases or in the Cambridge office can easily move between locations.

RRS Ernest Shackleton

The two ice-strengthened ships operated by the BAS carry their own servers which record and process data related to oceanography and marine biologyPhoto: British Antarctic Survey

"The idea is that if you go into the Antarctic, then wherever you go you'll find the same PCs. We use primarily Viglen PCs - not so we support Alan Sugar but so that if somebody wants to maintain or look after them then we have the same kit wherever we go," Blake said.

The BAS team out in the field can also use Toshiba portable PCs, which its researchers have found a novel way to fix when they fail due to the extreme temperatures. "When it gets very cold, you take the battery out, put it in your sleeping bag overnight then put it back in and it works OK," Blake said.

The BAS' PCs run either Windows XP or Windows 7, which the teams working in Antarctica use in conjunction with Oracle SQL database technology to manage the scientific data they acquire.

Each research base has its own internal office space equipped with a Novell LAN along with servers running Unix or Red Hat or Debian Linux.

"We've used quite a few flavours [of server OS] and it will depend on what the particular functionality is of the site," he said.

There's also an emphasis on minimising power usage on the remote bases. "One of the great problems we have is power, because to generate power we either have wind turbines - which aren't very good in the depths of winter - or we use standard hydrocarbon fuel-based generators," Blake told silicon.com.

In an effort to reduce the power usage of its IT, the BAS has been using VMWare server virtualisation for a number of years.

"For environmental and cost reasons we want to keep the fuel as limited as possible so we adopted virtualisation for IT a long while ago, solely because it provided a means of actually reducing the amount of power we needed to power loads of servers," Blake said.

Developing scientific instruments

In contrast to its off-the-shelf IT hardware, the technology the BAS researchers use to gather and record data tends to be developed inhouse, due to the very specific tasks staff will use them for.

If there is a particular instrumentation or data-acquisition system needed, the BAS develops the software for it and then integrates it with its existing Linux, Unix or Windows systems.

"We develop our own systems, do the research into the physics of certain instruments and we also occasionally buy...

...stuff off the shelf as well and then configure it for use in Antarctica," Blake said.

Instrumentation includes VLF radars, which measure solar precipitation from the sun in the different layers of the atmosphere; low-powered magnetometers for measuring magnetic behaviour in the polar region; and rheometers, which measure the change in liquid in response to applied forces.

The BAS develops much of this instrumentation so it can be used in the Antarctic conditions. At the Halley research base, for example, temperatures can fall to as low as -50 degrees C.

"All of the kit put inside the labs in Antarctica is in a standard temperature range - it's the stuff in the field where the challenges come in," Blake said.

The BAS tests certain technology in inhouse freezers in Cambridge to find out how they respond to the Antarctic's freezing and thawing conditions. "If it is an instrument that requires a lot more high-level data acquisition then we would build something and put it in a box and test it and make sure it works," Blake said.

The importance of comms

With the bases, ships and planes operating in remote regions, communications are crucial for the BAS.

The organisation has a total satellite bandwidth of 1Mbps both in and out of Antarctica with the bandwidth shared between the different bases. According to Blake, the biggest base Rothera has 384Kbps, Halley 256Kbps, Bird Island 64Kbps and the two ships 128Kbps each.

While it's a very limited bandwidth link - especially when being used for telephone, emails and the transfer of scientific data - the BAS has developed software that allows "a reasonable amount of data" to be transmitted between bases and the UK.

Although some data is transmitted from the bases and the ships, the raw data is often stored on the bases or on board the ships and taken back to the UK when the study season ends in December.

Ships, planes and IT

As well as acting as storage hubs for the BAS' Antarctic operations, the ships house scientific instrumentation. The RRS James Clark Ross, for example, is used for oceanographic and marine biology research and has multi-beam and sub-bottom profilers which map out the ocean floor and study sediment to understand what the continent was like before the oceans covered it.

The ship also studies...

...ocean columns - essentially the properties of the sea water, such as temperature and salinity, at different depths.

The BAS also has four Twin Otter planes fitted with wheels and skis that operate between bases and a Dash-7 plane which travels between the biggest base Rothera and the Falkland Islands.

The Twin Otters carry radar, magnetometers, gravimeters - which measure local gravitational field - and meteorological instruments.

The scientific work is mainly concerned with sub-glacial surveys of the continent underneath the surface of the ice. Using radar developed by the BAS, scientists on board the planes can look at the structure of the ice.

The BAS survey plane

The BAS-operated planes use radar and various other instruments to survey the continent beneath the icePhoto: British Antarctic Survey

"By using these techniques you can see what the continent was, how it's formed and what is actually down underneath the ice," Blake said.

Research is currently focused on identifying and studying sub-glacial lakes of which there are estimated to be around 180 on Antarctica.

"The lakes are initially identified with radar and then we use some seismic survey system to actually get a much higher resolution down in the ice, and now we're developing a hot water drilling system to drill through," Blake said.

Although the BAS planes are used to locate the lakes, they are unable to carry the heavy drilling equipment required to access them. The BAS has enlisted the help of Russian heavy transport planes to fly the equipment in to the continent before moving them inland.

"We're looking very much at trying in the future to automate much more the instrumentation so that rather than having people go out into the field to collect data, we actually are able to have better power systems in the field, reliable systems that transmit data back," Blake said.

As a result, aircraft wouldn't need to be deployed as often to check on instrumentation, saving the BAS money. "We're very keen to develop the field instrumentation a lot more," Blake said.