Webcams in Antarctica

Tony Hansen, P.I., and Joe Mastroianni; USAP Project OO-314-O, NSF Grant DBI-0119793

Antarctica is one of the most remarkable continents on our planet: dominated by ice, yet with desert areas that have not seen rain in 2 million years; inhospitable to human occupation, yet teeming with wildlife; glaringly bright under an unfiltered sun, and simultaneously killingly cold.  Antarctica offers some scientists an ideal location to study the solar system and our place in the universe, setting up detectors for neutrinos and cosmic radiation; others find enormous single-celled organisms in shallow waters; and some find barely-functioning life in desert soils under conditions that may resemble the surface of the planet Mars.  In addition, the effects of human activity on our own planet are exaggerated at the poles, as shown by studies of the ozone hole and global warming.

For almost 50 years, the United States has maintained the largest scientific research program in Antarctica and now supports literally hundreds of projects deployed all across the continent.  Some of these projects are conducted in the 'deep field', where people live in tents and accumulate ice on their beards in a manner that Scott and Amundsen would immediately recognize.  Others work in offices and laboratories as good as any in the world, with internet and phone connections, hot showers, restaurant-quality meals and facilities that match the incredible view through the windows.

Much of the research in Antarctica requires on-the-spot observation and analysis: organisms in the ocean are found, photographed and catalogued; microbes in the soil are cultured and put under the microscope; glaciers are tracked.  Much of this is labor-intensive, the methodology being the direct descendant of the initial discoveries.  If there's something out in Antarctica that we study, in many cases we have to go out there in order to do so.  Yet as our knowledge progresses beyond the initial discovery, we need longer-term observations: we need to see how these things evolve, move, metabolize over time: we need to know this in order to understand the mechanisms that make them tick, so that we can move past the external appearance to get to the underlying science.

Some projects were able to install automatic instruments to gather and record data over months or a year: but often these installations require substantial infrastructure to provide power, heat, and a weatherproof environment.  Those stations became large endeavors in their own right, and the logistical cost of supporting them became a determining factor.

Modern technology, however, now offers us solar panels, lithium batteries, microprocessors and satellite links to the Internet.  Couple these to the appropriate sensors or cameras, and we have the technological capability to perform certain observations remotely, in a unit that can be constructed and configured in advance, and then simply transported out to the field site and set in place.  The buzzword is 'telescience'.  It will never replace the value of the scientist in the field: it is intended to complement and amplify (or leverage) our powers of observation, by giving us a distant set of eyes or sensors.  Scientists define the goals, decide what's required: but we as engineers must create the sheetmetal, the wiring, the code that enables the remote presence.

The National Science Foundation funded us under project DBI-0119793 to do exactly that: to build autonomous instrumentation modules to allow measurements to be made remotely, and brought right to the scientist's desktop via the Internet.  To measure glacier creep, a module containing a high-precision GPS could be set down by helicopter, transmitting a readout every day.  This could permit the study of glaciers too remote or too dangerous to climb.  To decide when to study the revitalization of freeze-dried microbes when meltwater starts trickling down dry streambeds, a module could be set down with a water sensor.  This could inform the field team of exactly when conditions were becoming optimal, to save them camping out for weeks in advance.  Many other applications can be envisioned: but the geeks have to go first, to make the hardware work.  That's what we're doing this year.  Our name for it is the 'TAISU', standing for Transportable Autonomous Instrumentation Support Unit.  (note: this does sound as if it's a Russian or Japanese word: we made sure that it doesn't actually mean anything rude in those languages !)

Last year (the 2001/2002 season) we constructed a prototype Taisu to house an air-pollution instrument at Lake Hoare in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  It provided electrical power, a warm sheltered interior, but no remote access.  It was intended to test the electrical and thermal concept, and worked extremely well.  Click here to read about the initial proposal, construction and testing in California, and click here to see a short report on its first year's performance. During 2002 we built a second unit, and equipped both of them with cameras and wireless interfaces to the Internet.  The objectives of our project this year are to demonstrate the remote communications, the ability to set something down by helicopter in the middle of nowhere and get data back from it.  Attach a camera, and scientists can see; attach a water sensor, and they can taste; attach a seismometer or GPS, and they can feel the ground or the ice move.  Those projects will come later, we hope: but first, Joe and I have got to get the volts, the amps, the bits and the bauds working.

This year (2002/2003), we set up our equipment in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  This is an area of Antarctica that is shielded by high mountains and is not covered by ice.  Instead, the environment resembles the high deserts of the Himalayas (not that I've ever been there ..).  The land has not seen rain for maybe Two Million Years.  Humidity is zero.  No (conventional) plants grow here, no trees, no animals, no birds.  There are lakes that consist of mineral-laden water overlain by a thick cap of ice that never melts.  In the summer, the 24-hour sunshine creates trickles of meltwater from the glaciers that march down the mountainsides; as these ephemeral streams run over rocks, they moisten and bring back to life mats of algae, dried deposits of slime, that had dehydrated and frozen at the end of the previous summer.  The soils contain microorganisms that similarly exist in (mostly-) suspended animation, just waiting for a drop of water.  The entire ecosystem lives on the edge of survival, just as life may exist on Mars.  All of this is of great interest to scientists, but the environment is extremely fragile: consequently, we must minimize our presence and impact, we can't just trample all over the landscape whenever we want.  The ability to make remote observations would be a great benefit, and this is where we first deployed the Taisus.

Taisu #1 : Lake Bonney, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

This was the first Taisu that we built in 2001.  It has an datalogger that monitors internal temperature and battery voltage .. but which could also obviously be connected to all types of external sensors.  The charge from its solar panels is regulated "conventionally" i.e. the current is disconnected when the batteries are full.  Why does this matter? .. see below, good geek detail.  It has an "802.11" radio interface that uses the same type of wireless communications as is now common for internal networking in homes and offices.  This provides an Internet connection to the datalogger and .. most importantly .. the steerable webcam.  This webcam is used commercially for security and surveillance, typically in banks, public buildings, etc.  The features that were important for us are the steerability, the zoom, and the built-in web server that delivers the images and presents a control panel to the distant viewer.  The optical zoom is awesome - try it.
Click Here to go to the Steerable Webcam at Lake Bonney, Antarctica

Taisu #2 : Lake Hoare, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

This is the second Taisu that we built in 2002.  It, too, has a datalogger and a wireless Internet interface.  To complete our 3-year study of the reduction of diesel air pollution resulting from a switch to solar power, this Taisu contains an Aethalometer - our pollution particulate monitor.  The Taisu has "dissipative" regulation of the solar panels (something that we re-invented completely independently), whereby any surplus power from the panels is dumped as heat inside the case.  This actually constitutes a useful amount of energy, and the additional heat keeps the interior warm - 70'F or more - even though it's below freezing outside.  This Taisu has a fixed webcam that shows a given image.  Although you can't look around, there is a lot more activity at the Hoare site, and you may see a helicopter on the landing pad in the mid-foreground.
Click Here to go to the Webcam at Lake Hoare, Antarctica

McMurdo Webcam

This is a webcam that seemingly was set up by a NASA project.  We can recognize the view that it shows, but when we look for it, we can't see it anywhere .. it must be tucked up on the roof of a building somewhere.