Saturday, October 30, 2010

Last Day

Despite my best efforts, today is the day I have to leave McMurdo and return to the real world. It's been an unbelievable experience so far, but after three short-yet-long weeks on the ice, it's time to head back home. In every respect, this trip has been a success, though none of the success came quite as easily as we'd hoped. Just about everything seems to take longer and require more more effort, elbow grease, debugging, and loss of sleep than I expect going into it. Even though I've come to expect incorrect expectations, setting that twiddle factor seems to be one of the hardest but most important skills that one can acquire through experience.

Skiing after Yeti on the endurance test.

The night before last, I had the opportunity to speak to Roberta Palmiotto's class of 9th and 10th graders, who had a number of great questions about Yeti and life in Antarctica. Thanks to Roberta and the whole class, it was quite the treat to talk to them, and hopefully a few of them will consider joining the next generation of polar roboticists. It's clear that there's unbounded potential for robots in extreme environemnts, but one of the constraints on the Yeti project has been getting the right combination of people and skills to design, build, program, debug, test, and deploy the robot. This is definitely the coolest job I can imagine, aside from my work at PSI, which is essentially the same thing but more secret and indoors. One of the major next steps is finding the right people to carry the project forward, though I'll have to leave that to Professor Ray and Jim. They recently received word that their proposal to extend the 'Cool Robot' project was funded, which is really exciting news.

I've been told that Halloween is the biggest and most significant holiday down here at McMurdo, and everyone pulls out all of the stops with creative costumes. I was scheduled to fly out about 4 hours before the Halloween celebrations began, but every single flight in the last two weeks has been delayed, and several people have spent another full week just waiting to take off. Hoping I would get a 12 hour delay and fly the next morning, I eagerly waited and waited until it became clear that the flight was not delayed and I really would have to leave. To add insult to insult, I'm the ONLY passenger on this flight from McMurdo, joining one Medical evacuee from the South Pole. I'm not sure what the cost per hour to operate a C-17 'Globemaster' is, but I'm pretty sure that my return trip cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was expecting to be crammed in with pallets of cargo but I'm sitting with the flight crew and an entirely empty plane. I'm guessing that the plane delivered a bunch of cargo on the way in, but it's still quite the experience to get a private flight on a $237 million dollar air force plane (some sources say only $191 million).

One last look at Mt. Erebus, outgassing volcanic steam and vapors on a perfect afternoon.

I got to ride up in the cockpit for a while, and the pilots from the National Air Guard gave me a walkthrough and answered some questions about the plane. I thought that our drive in the Case tractor, at 3 gallons per mile, was pretty poor fuel efficiency, but that's NOTHING compared to this beast. This trip to take me off the ice will burn 180,000 lbs of fuel, or approximately 35,000 gallons. I felt bad about commuting to work in a civic every day, but apparently this one trip alone will release 270 TONS of CO2, putting me at 67.5 times the average worldwide annual CO2 emissions per person for this one flight alone. That sounds unbelievable, but it's based on a burn rate of 7,000 gallons per hour, and 3 pounds of CO2 output for every pound of jet fuel burned (oxygen atoms are heavy...). The plane was bringing food and supplies down to McMurdo, so I'm just catching a ride on the way home, but it definitely doesn't give me warm fuzzies for being a good global citizen. I just found out that there were supposed to be another nine people on this flight, but somehow ALL NINE OTHER PEOPLE convinced the NSF that they had a good reason to stay for Halloween, and I was the only one without a good enough excuse :(

The sadly empty inside of my private C-17.

On Wednesday morning, we had several hours to perform the last test on Yeti. Since everything else worked out well, we wanted to show that we could program an autonomous run in which Yeti would traverse out across the ice to a predetermined point, then execute a rosette pattern over a simulated crevasse location to collect radar data from different approach angles to the crevasse. This should have been trivially simple, but required scaling up the number of waypoints we sent Yeti from 10 to 150. After finally getting everything set up, we sent Yeti out to execute a 1 mile run with two rosette pattern searches along the way. It perfectly executed the first, then stopped and waited for instructions. With 10 minutes remaining before we had to crate Yeti up to ship it back to NH, we had to stop the test and bring it home. I'm pretty sure that this is a trivially simple bug that caused Yeti to stop early. This is a capability we can easily demonstrate back in New Hampshire and an add-on to our original goals, but it was still a little frustrating that it didn't work without modification.

The view out the window on the way home.

I'll continue writing until I get home, on Sunday the 7th. I'll be holed up in a library in New Zealand furiously working away on projects for PSI until then. I need to thank everyone who helped make this trip possible. I'd principally like to thank Jim Lever and Professor Ray for creating this opportunity which began in 2007, and sticking with the project since that time to help in every possible way. Without their advice, guidance, and support, we'd never have made it off the drawing board. Our Greenland deployment, and subsequently this trip, would not have been possible without the sponsorship and support from Ken Corcoran and the folks at Geophysical Survey Systems Incorporated. Thanks also to my 190/290 project teammates who worked insane hours through 2007-2008 to build Yeti in the first place, and Chris, Taro, and Max who did the groundbreaking and exhaustively thorough initial conceptual chassis design. I wonder if they ever expected to see it get this far, I certainly have been pleasantly surprised. Finally, thanks to everyone else at Thayer who helped us along the way. Thanks to all of the support staff at McMurdo and with the USAP. They outnumber the scientists by 10:1 and work 6-days a week, 10 hours a day. Many of them come to Antarctica for the unique experience, but have to earn the right to be here by working insanely hard, many with irregularly rotating night shifts and without weekends. I also need to thank NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab for the initial education grant that funded us to build the robot, and the NSF for their continued support of our field operations in Greenland and Antarctica.

Lastly, but extremely importantly, I'd like to thank everyone at PSI for making it possible for me to take a few weeks off to be here. Initially it looked as though the scheduling would work out a lot better than it did in reality, and I need to thank Brian, Jay, Emily, Charlie, Pete, Peter, Marty, Jim, and especially Dave for picking up some of the slack while I'm gone. Now that I'm back, it'll be a few weeks of the 6-day 28-hour schedule to get caught up and prove my worth again :).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Endurance Testing

We've been working furiously to finish up the project before our scheduled departure date back to the states. I've got a bit of catching up to do with the blog, since we've been doing a bunch of runs and tests since the weekend. After getting back from the Shear zone, our highest priority was in showing that Yeti could complete a fully autonomous and uninterrupted run without any input from the users. The test in the shear zone was mostly successful in that Yeti operated reliably and completed its fun while collecting the radar data we were looking for, but we had to stop it a few times and I made several mistakes that caused it to stop and restart. We wanted to show that we could complete a course longer than five miles entirely hands off, so I worked to set up a course on the sea ice near to McMurdo.

We have several challenges to staging this test. The first, is that prior to this deployment, we had not had the opportunity to fully test the radio range, and our observed range was MUCH lower than what we were expecting based on the manufacturer's claims. The datasheets said 60 mile range, but that apparently assumes that each antenna is 100' off the ground, which is obviously impractical for us. Instead, we were finding that we could only reliably communicate out to 3/4th of a mile, which is basically worthless when we're operating 5 miles away.

I set up a few tests and was able to get reliable communication at 3 or 4 miles by raising one antenna a lot higher off the ground and sending very short messages. We only had one day to perform the final endurance trial for Yeti, so everything was coming down to the wire. I wanted to make sure that we wouldn't lose radio comms under any circumstances, so I had to MacGyver together a tall transmitter and pole. The final design used the following parts:

9 bamboo poles
1 roll of duct tape
1 sharpie
2 hoseclamps
2 chemical handwarmer packets to keep the batteries warm
1 chemical spill blanket to insulate the batteries
1 piece of rope from the crevasse rescue bag
4 serial cables, one of them homemade

My kludged antenna mounted on the living module.

The final antenna pole was somewhere between 25'-30' tall when mounted on the living module for the traverse. The rest of the traverse team was laughing at this epic kludge, but it turned out to be brutally effective and gave us a significant improvement in range.

The other major constraint was that we didn't have access to a truck since another 50 scientists have shown up and resources are pretty tight. They've started packing 3,4, and even 5 people to a single room in some of the dorms, but luckily Jim and I have escaped that mess by virtue of the fact that we're leaving in a few days. Not having a truck to chase Yeti makes everything a bit harder, since we wouldn't have any ability to stop or fix it if there were any problems on the run. We were confident enough that it would perform well that we weren't too worried about it, but I still wanted to be there in case something happened. The only way I was going to be able to keep up with Yeti was on skis, so I got a pair of skate skis and took them down to the traverse staging area.

I haven't cross country skied in over seven years, and haven't ever tried skate skiing before, so this was going to be a bit of an interesting challenge. Ben Koons, a friend from Dartmouth, skied for New Zealand in the Olympics, so I assumed it wasn't too hard if he had gone that far with it (Hi Ben). I tried double-polling for about 100' and it seemed pretty easy, so we set Yeti up and sent it the waypoints. I called to Jim on the radio to press the play button and we were off.

The first several hundred meters were a breeze, and I had no problem keeping up with Yeti despite my total lack of any skill on nordic skis. After about 500m, I started slowing down appreciably, and noticed that Yeti was starting to get out ahead of me a bit. The full course length was 6.7 miles, so I began to get a little nervous. It got A LOT worse over the next couple miles, and Yeti proved to be a totally unrelenting pace car. Somewhere around mile 2.5 I started to get the hang of skate skiing, at least to the point where I could pour on the heat and sprint ahead of Yeti, then take about five seconds to recover and start slogging along again.

I made a mistake while getting the coordinates and hadn't fully appreciated the slight bend in the road to Pegasus. This meant that Yeti had to cross through a line of bamboo flags twice both out and back along the route, and I was worried that it would get stuck on one. The first time it crossed the line, I was heaving to keep up with it and couldn't get to it in time as it was heading straight for a flag. Yeti managed to snap it in half without any problem, and continue on, perfectly threading its way back across the line and narrowly avoiding another flag on the way back. We might need to install some vision systems in future designs, but for now it seems to work to give Yeti enough power to mow over whatever lies in its path.

Right around mile 2.3, it made a turn towards a waypoint and looked like it was heading home, which gave me a huge sense of relief, but then continued on its way and I realized I was only a third of the way into the course. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the turnaround and Yeti successfully hit all of the waypoints and started back home. This time I was more determined to make sure Yeti didn't hit anything, so I tried as hard as I could to stay out in front. It managed to avoid everything else along the way, and make it back home.

I was totally wiped out and Jim was laughing at me when we got back, but the test was a total success and the first time that Yeti had finished a long distance course without any input or restarts.

I'm a little too addicted to the soft-serve ice cream here and eat it even outside. I had an interesting experience yesterday where for about half a second I was wondering what was going on when I realized that my ice cream was getting harder and unmelting after I walked outside into the -20 degree air. It kept getting more solid until it became difficult to eat, which was definitely the first time that had ever happened to me!

The sun partially occluded by Observation Hill on the way home from Scott Base to McMurdo.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Out at the Shear Zone

Sorry for the long delay! We just got back from the shear zone, about 30 miles out from McMurdo. Seeing it for the first time really helped put in perspective what we've been working on for the last couple of years. The shear zone is the area where the Ross ice shelf meets the McMurdo ice shelf. The two shelves have different speeds, creating a particularly nasty area riddled with crevasses at the interface between the two. The traverse route crosses perpendicular to the shear zone, but still has to travel over 3.5 miles of heavily crevassed terrain. These cracks change season to season, and often times new ones open up each year. All of them are invisible from the surface, however, and many are hundreds of feet deep.

Jim and I drove a Case tractor to get to the South Pole Traverse camp on the near side of the shear zone. I found out while en route that our vehicle has an excellent fuel efficiency and burns 3 gallons of diesel per mile travelled. The route was covered in dense fog, which made it hard to see the flags marking the ice road. In those conditions out on the sea ice, it's a strangely surreal feeling to be surrounded by absolutely nothing but white, with no visible horizon or visible features of any kind. Luckily, we were able to navigate by GPS between flags, and reached the traverse camp on time.

Our Case, loaded up with Yeti and equipment in tow.

The SPoT camp, with living module (red) on the left, the H2 module (my living space) in blue, and several tractors.

We were initially supposed to have a week to test Yeti in the shear zone, but that got crunched down into 2.5 days. The first day, our goal was to collect radar data over a crevasse and setup the route that we would send it off on for an autonomous run the next day. Zoe and Allan headed out ahead of us in a Cat, and Jim and I followed in a tractor. We were looking for one specific crevasse that would give clean radar signatures so we could collect a data set that will later be used to autonomously detect crevasses. When Allan drove over the snow bridge in the cat, it opened up a small hole on the surface. Jim and I saw the hole just as we were about to drive over it, and weren't able to stop in time. We knew the crevasse was only a meter or two wide, but it was bizarre to look behind us and see the hold widened out to around 5 feet. We had to backup and drive back over the hole again, since the road was the only portion of the ice that had already been surveyed. The Case made an ominous sound clunking in and out of the hole, but we made it back across in one piece.

After successfully 'finding' a decent crevasse to survey with Yeti, we attempted to drive a rosette pattern to approach the crevasse from different angles with the robot. Our only goals were to keep Yeti driving straight and avoid the 5' hole we just made, and I found it absurdly difficult to keep Yeti safely away from the hole. At the time, I decided that this was target fixation, but we would soon find that Yeti has a magnetic affinity to holes in the ice and bamboo flag poles. While driving around autonomously, it seems to lock in with laser precision on the only one or two obstacles around for miles, which I'm sure is a corollary of Murphy's law.

It's almost 2am and I have to get up early for another long day of testing, but I'll write up the rest of the work at the shear zone tomorrow. Rest assured that Yeti did not fall in a hole, but did annihilate many bamboo poles.

Mt. Erebus, an active volcano, from a distance. It's not really nighttime, since the sun stopped setting last week, but it does go low and create very cool lighting conditions.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Running on Ice

A lot has happened here at McMurdo since my last post. Our deployment date to the shear zone keeps slipping back, so we're doing more work to test and prepare Yeti on the ice around the station. Two days ago, Jim and I took Yeti out to the SPoTSA (South Pole Traverse Staging Area), and set up our first endurance course to run Yeti for several miles. It had already performed just find on several shorter courses closer to home, so we were both expecting this to be a bit of a formality. We set everything up and pressed play, and Yeti drove off into the sunset towards the outbound waypoint. After about 1km, it hit the next two waypoints and turned to head home, but then kept turning in a 50m circle, and kept going around and around. This was pretty bizarre, but radio comms had been dropping out, so we set it up again and chased it with a truck to stay in radio range. The exact same thing happened again, and left us head scratching.

Yeti outbound on the endurance tests with Mt. Discovery in the background.

We headed back in and I downloaded the telemetry data. It became clear that a bug in the error handling for the GPS input had caused the problem, and the GPS had dropped out at exactly the same point in both runs. There appears to be an intermittent power connection to the GPS which causes some brief dropouts, and the program caused the robot to hold its last command, which in this case was to turn slightly to the right, making it drive in large circles indefinitely.

I rewired the power distribution and tightened down all of the connections, and added a much more robust error handling routine to the code in a late-night push to get everything fixed and set up for another day of testing. I managed to have a bit of a nailbiter of a night, however, when I was tested the intermittent power failures and managed to flip Yeti over, snapping the GPS antenna off. Luckily, everything other than the pole holding the antenna up was fine, and the machine shop at vehicle maintenance was able to build a MUCH nicer antenna mount in a few hours. I then spent yesterday re-running endurance tests, and everything worked out extremely well, setting us up for our first runs with the radar units.

I saw a 'Sun Dog,' while performing endurance tests. These are like rainbows but formed due to small snow crystals in the air, and are all white.

There are several interesting applications apart from crevasse detection that we're going to test Yeti out on. We're going to try looking at sea ice to determine thickness and quality to see if it's feasible to use the robot to survey the airfields here. Apparently they have to drill 30 boreholes a day to profile the ice conditions, and we could dramatically improve the efficiency of that process with Yeti if the radar has a high enough resolution. Allan Delaney will be helping us with the radar to test this and see if it works, which could potentially open up another source for grant funding if successful!

A C-17 on the ice runway, viewed from SPoTSA

Friday, October 15, 2010

Final Preparations

After making Yeti work pretty well, all of a sudden there are a bunch of other things to do. Jim has developed a datalogger system for the large fuel bladder sleds that will record a temperature profile from the bottom of the sled using 46 thermocouples and a huge mess of wires. We spent the day out at the traverse staging area installing the thermocouples while the rest of the team sorted food into the refrigerator container sled. I would have thought that since we're in Antarctica and it never gets above freezing that the traverse would not need a dedicated walk-in freezer the size of a whole living module, but apparently the sun heats everything up enough that they do. Instead of circulating the sub-zero air from outside, it operates as a standard freezer, which is a little absurd but comes pre-built, and thus makes sense...sort of.

This is the living module that will house eight crew members. The insides are actually very nice with ample space and a comfortable kitchen and lounge. There's not a ton of privacy, but significantly more space than a naval ship.

Jim and I, if we're lucky, will be living in the H2 module. This guy has two bunks at the top, and living space below. It's sort of like sharing a tall cubicle with someone for a week, though remarkably comfortable and well designed.

While we were out in the staging area, I had an excellent view of Mt. Erebus outgassing behind McMurdo. Erebus is an active volcano, and has active fumoroles and lava pits on top, but I haven't been able to see the smoke before today. Apparently this is one place where a lot of volcanologists with no direct interest in Antarctica come to do research, since it's one of the few volcanoes in the world that's continuously active.

On the way back from the traverse staging area, I was lucky enough to catch a team of French scientists launching a high-altitude research balloon. The launch operations are very involved and elaborate. I unfortunately have no clue what they're actually doing, but I'll try to find this out.

We met another group a few days ago doing interesting robotics work out of McMurdo. This group has developed a robot named SCINI (skinny), which is an underwater ROV designed to fit down an 8" drilled hole in the ice. It's operated on the end of a tether, and has a number of cameras and a gripper. They're using it to look at the results of 40-year growth experiments that have been sitting on the bottom of the ocean floor since the 70's.

These guys had to deal with an additional operational issue that we have yet to deal with on the Yeti project. They're operating in a small shack over a drilled hole in the ice from which they pilot the ROV. A local seal has decided that it likes them, and will frequently come up the hole in the ice and into the shack to hang out. It signals that it wants to play with them by blowing bubbles in the water, and blowing air and water at them. They thought this was awesome the first time, but after encountering this fellow many times, his habit of sneezing mucus all over them is apparently not as funny as it used to be. Bob described it as 'lung butter,' which sounded like something that shouldn't get sprayed on computers.

The SCINI robot is really cleverly designed to fit down small holes in the ice an carry a number of different payloads to support different science missions.

The team let us try driving it around. They control SCINI with a wireless playstation controller which is a lot slicker than Yeti's 'toolstation.'

We had some more successful runs of Yeti down by the ice pier, and seem to be holding sub-meter tolerances to GPS waypoints. The controller could use some tweaking and some integral control. At the moment, when Yeti hits a waypoint, it turns towards the next one but makes a sweeping arc to get there. Since we need forward motion to estimate bearing using successive GPS points (we can't use a magnetometer since magnetic bearing doesn't work near the poles), I don't have a closed-loop way of reorienting Yeti towards the next waypoint. The result is that we can hit all the waypoints but don't hold a tight path between them. I'm working on a quick hack of a solution to have Yeti spin at a given rate for a given period of time, which will probably get us most of the way there and isn't really rocket science.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Autonomous at Last

Great news! Jim and I fired up Yeti with the first version of the new autonomous control code and it works astounding well even before tuning the controller. For those of you who are interested in the details, read below, otherwise skip over the next paragraph. We're heading out to the shear zone on Saturday now, and Yeti looks to be in great shape to complete the mission, though it took a string of anxious nights of hanging out alone in three layers of jackets hauling Yeti up and down stairs by myself at 2am to get here. I seem to have overshot the required effort level a bit since we still have a couple days, I guess I'm getting out of practice on the 'procrastinate and cram' cycle.

Yeti before the trial run, looking out over the ice runways towards the Transantarctic mountains:

The niche of a subbasement where all of my work gets done. One pro of this arrangement is that I get to try out the new concept of working at a standing desk. A con, however, is that the desk happens to be a barrel of toxic waste, and covered in the dust of some other toxic waste*.

After several days of pouring through the details of the code and implementing a bunch of features I've always wanted but never had time to develop, I finally put a few pieces of test code together into the first version of the autonomous control code for Yeti. I've been 'almost there' for several days now, and it was seemingly frustratingly slow to get all of the issues hammered out. When I finally put all of the new code together, I called Jim to come help me get Yeti outside and to be in place to tackle it in the highly likely event that the first version of the code didn't work and it decided to go on the fritz. One of the key issues roboticists have to deal with is preparing for the inevitable eventual human enslavement to robots. It helps to have someone close to the off switch to preempt any precursors.

I surveyed a few waypoints out near the ice pier at McMurdo, and drove Yeti out there to start the testing run. I assured Jim that there was no way it would work, and nervously pressed the button to begin the run. Yeti took off and made course corrections towards the first waypoint, found the waypoint, then reoriented and finished the route. I was surprised enough that I had to try it again, and in ran the route in exactly the tracks it had just made. We then took it out for a longer and more complicated run, and it executed that route flawlessly. This is great news, because now we can focus on improving the reliability and making the robot more generally useful, in addition to adding all sorts of unnecessarily sweet features.

If you're not interested in why the new version works and the old one didn't, then skip this section. After spending a lot of time drilling into the code, I found that there was an issue in translating lat/lon coordinates to cartesian coordinates in which the least significant digits were being truncated and rounded, artificially limiting precision and creating an unnecessarily low resolution for a bearing calculation. I found that if I did all of this arithmetic on only the decimal lat/lon minutes, you get much better performance. The key breakthrough that made it possible to test and isolate the problems were twofold. First, I began to use the powerful debugging features built into the Dynamic C development environment, and second, I implemented a more functional telemetry that allows Yeti to transmit data back to the basestation for processing and analysis. Before this, we had to test code by driving Yeti around and seeing if it was roughly doing what we wanted it to do. The previous version of the code accomplished exactly that - it roughly accomplished what we were trying to do. Now, however, I can finally throw Matlab at it and have some confidence that we've got it right. I'll post some plots tomorrow after another round of testing.

Some more pictures:

This is a memorial erected to Scott in 1912 on top of Observation Hill next to McMurdo on the very end of the peninsula on Ross Island.

Toby, one of the mechanics, built this snow chopper entirely out of salvaged parts from junker snow machines, and it works just fine. Note the ice axe built into the front suspension.

This is one of the Case tractors that will be hauling fuel on the traverse. These machines run around $500,000 stock, with an additional winterizing fee. In 2008, the Greenland traverse got one of these stuck in the ice 50 miles outside of Thule and had to leave it there. They came back a year later to find it entirely buried in the ice, and sent a team of people to recover it. It took them several weeks of digging to free it from the ice, and eventually they got it out.

These never get old, every night is different.

I'll have a more time tomorrow to post pictures (I know that's all that most people see :) and some pretty plots of telemetry data. I've also received some extremely well considered and length responses to the 'should you pee if you're cold' argument and will post links to the solutions that some people have posed. If anyone else wants to throw their hat in the ring, send me your response. I've recruited a coalition now on base that's on the thermodynamically accurate side of the debate, but many remain unconvinced!

*These barrels are probably not filled with anything that is either toxic or waste, since neither are allowed under the Antarctic treaty. Technically I'm not even allowed to pee outside the building, and any drop of fuel or even food that is spilled gets cleaned up and packed out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Long Hours and Debugging

The new schedule has proved to be challenging but effective for getting a lot done with Yeti. Yesterday I went to bed at 5am and was supposed to sleep until 2pm, but found that I keep waking up far earlier and end up getting far too little sleep. Despite this, I've had some solid long blocks of time to debug issues with Yeti.

I've been working through a lot of reliability and performance issues that we've seen all along. When we first built the robot, the code and electronics were all developed somewhat ad-hoc, somewhat against the advice of Professor Ray. We've found numerous small reliability issues that are each small, but when compounded, mean that whoever is operating the robot really needs to understand everything that's going on internally. The goal of being here this year is to make a compelling enough case to propose additional funding to develop a more reliable and field-hardened system.

One of the most challenging aspects of developing the code on Yeti is that I actually have to run it around outside in order to test the GPS navigation. When things aren't working, it can be really challenging to figure out exactly why they're not, and the time to iteratively test and debugging code in little pieces is much much higher than when you're writing code to execute on your own computer. I spent the last day building telemetry into the code, so I can get data back over the radio and not have to chase around the robot while holding a laptop that's plugged into it in -20 degree temperatures and high wind. We're really close at this point, and I've made huge improvements in the numerical stability of our navigation code, which I'm hoping to test tomorrow after crevasse rescue training.

During our happy camper survival training, I quickly became annoying in holding down one side of a debate that's always bothered me. If anyone can point out something I'm missing, let me know. The debate was whether if you're cold, you should pee, because your body is expending energy to keep the urine warm. I argued that this is totally wrong, and that it makes sense to pee because it's uncomfortable, but that you don't lose any more heat. Three PhDs in various fields of science, along with a recent graduate who had 'just taken thermo' all argued the other side. The basis of my argument is that all of your heat loss is through your skin via convection, conduction, radiation, and some evaporation, and all of those remain constant before and after urinating (ignoring the negligible change in skin surface area accompanying the smaller volume of your body after peeing). Similarly, since the urine is already at body temperature, you don't need to do any work to change its temperature. If you work out the energy balance, the metabolic work going into maintaining body temperature would equal the m*c*delta T of the urine minus the heat lost on your skin. Since delta T is zero, you're not doing any work to keep it warm. The counter point, as far as I could tell, was simply that "with more mass, your body needs to expend more energy to keep it warm." In reality, the other side didn't really care that much, but it's just so hard to let someone be wrong! Following that line of thought, feel free to correct me:

We're heading out to the shear zone on Friday and I likely will be off the grid for a while then. I'll try to post updates when I can.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Almost There

I'm beginning an exciting new schedule that I've been waiting to try for some time. This week I'm implementing a six-day week of 28 hour days, going asynchronous with the rest of the world and living on my own clock. The rationale for this is that it allows you to work in long blocks of time and increase efficiency, and actually synchs up reasonably well with the times of the week that are important. I've joked about trying it for a while, but now's the only opportunity that I've had where I'm working entirely on my own and set my own schedule, and it never gets dark. We did a pretty good job of doing this accidentally while working 18 hour days in Greenland, but I'll be trying to stick to this schedule more rigorously. See this XKCD for reference:

After getting back from Happy Camper training on Saturday, we had an all hands on deck meeting in the McMurdo Galley because the whole station is facing a housing crisis. Apparently there are 150 extra people that will be coming at the height of the season, and this means turning some double rooms into quintuples. We're not affected by this since we're considered 'Beakers,' and have our own building. A number of people, however, have made this their permanent home, and have lived in one room for eight or more years and don't have a home in the US. Now, some of those people are being given roommates, and there's a significant amount of drama beginning to unfold.

On Saturday night, I went to my first party at one of the shops here, and was surprised to find about 100 people, lights, and multiple bands on stage. The ratio of support staff to scientists is something like 10:1, with about 1000 people here as mechanics, dining hall workers, carpenters, and pilots among others. Many of the twentysomethings I've met here describe it as a summer camp for adults, though I've been working bizarre hours and haven't to spend much time socializing. It's also been described as a caste system with the scientists on top, and being a grantee gives you a surprising amount of clout. I exist somewhere in between since the South Pole Traverse is considered a Technical Event, but I feel pretty lucky to be down here and working with robots. There are a surprisingly large number of DAs (dining assistants) and carpenters with an M.S., and I met a girl last night who just came back from a Fulbright scholarship working on public health in India and will be spending the whole summer season shoveling snow off of pipes but is incredibly excited just to get to be here.

I've only got one good photo in this batch, the sunsets here are consistently blowing me away. This one is looking out over the Helo pads towards the Transantarctic Mountains.

I've debugged most of the robot code and fixed an issue with the GPS today, and built a set of debugging tools that will help streamline the process of debugging Yeti in the field. We're all set up for our first autonomous run tomorrow morning, so I'm crossing my fingers that all goes well. We're planning to deploy to the shear zone to begin mapping crevasses on Friday, so we still have a few days to work out issues and make improvements to the code (and there are many to make). The orientations are endless, and I'll hopefully be fitting in the testing around the eighth or ninth orientation, this one about environmental sensitivity. I've already had three on safety, one on base protocol, two on recreation policies, one on driving, two days of survival training, and one on sorting trash. Later this week I'll cap all of the sessions off with crevasse rescue training out on the ice which actually stands a chance of being fun and interesting.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Camper Survival Training

I just got back from the 'Happy Camper' ice survival training course where we spent two days out on the ice learning the tricks to surviving in style. I made a rough calorie estimate for yesterday and I'm ballparking anywhere between 6000-7500 calories consumed during the day.

The course started with the 20 of us 'happy campers' in a classroom, reviewing the finer points of risk assessment and McMurdo emergency protocols. After that, we loaded up our (Extreme Cold Weather gear)++ and headed to the Delta, an absurd looking vehicle designed with absurdly large and low pressure tires for driving people over snow. They gave everyone five minutes to gather extra equipment that they might have forgotten, and everyone thought it was hilarious that I came back with an ice cream cone from the 'frosty boy' dispenser. I'm up to five or six ice cream cones a day, there must be something addictive that they add to the sugary slop that goes into the soft-serve. I've even gone so far as prepping for a hike up observation hill in -10 degree temperatures by bringing along some ice cream.

Heading out to the ice on the Delta

Everyone loaded into the Delta with ECW gear on.

We drove for about 30 minutes away from McMurdo, through the Scott base (the New Zealand Antarctic Base), and arrived at our field camp, a Jamesway shelter set up on the sea ice. In the shelter, they brought out the first of what would be several absurdly large meals. They fed us sandwiches that easily had a full pound of turkey, or about two full inches of meat, along with bacon and cheese. On top of that, we had liberal amounts of fig newtons, chips, cookies, M&Ms, ritz, and plenty of chocolate. After some basic training on how to use camp stoves, we headed back out to the ice to set up camp for the night.

We hiked about half a mile and picked up gear, including some huge tents, and lots of shovels and wood saws to build up camp. I'd been through most of this training before, so what I was really looking forward to was building things out of snow. I got really excited when it came time to start quarrying snow blocks and building wind walls. We set up a professional quarrying operation, using rope as a snap line to mark out cutting lines in the snow, and had a number of people shuttling overfilled sleds full of 80 lb snow blocks between the quarry and camp. Everyone else was satisfied by building a basic wind protection wall, but Kris and I spent another few hours building a coliseum eating area complete with benches and tables.

Our instructor Bryan showing us the finer points of sawing snow into blocks.

We're about one week away from the point at which the sun no longer goes down. Right now, since the sun approaches the horizon at such a low angle, we're treated to HOURS of the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.

The sunset with the wind turbines that power Scott base and a portion of McMurdo. These were installed last year, and I believe more are scheduled for installation soon. All of the other power is supplied by diesel generator, which is why McMurdo has so many ugly 2M gallon diesel tanks (see below).

All of my construction came at the expense of spending time building a survival trench in which to spend the night. Many of the other members of the group were working on building themselves small snow caves instead of spending the night in a tent. Somewhere around 11:30, I decided that it would be fun to spend the night out, and decided to sleep in the non shelter that I'd been building. Our sleep kits included two sleeping pads, a ridiculously lofty sleeping bag, and a fleece bag liner. There wasn't any wind or snow, so the conditions were perfect for sleeping out. It took a while to get perfectly situated, but it was really warm and comfortable when I finally went to sleep. I woke up sometime in the early hours and the wind had started blowing from the exact opposite direction we were expecting, and directly through the only opening in the circular structure I was using as shelter. Despite this with something like eight layers on, I was still pretty warm and able to get some sleep. I found out later in the morning that the temperature had gone down to -21F.

In the morning, we packed up camp and headed back to the shelter to run some practice emergency scenarios. In the first, we had to wear 'whiteout buckets' over our heads to simulate trying to execute a missing person search in whiteout conditions. All we had to do was to get from the shelter to the latrine 100' away to find someone, and the route was marked every 10' with bamboo flags. Stephen and I headed out on the end of a rope, and thought were were doing an excellent job of routefinding towards the latrine. The instructors stopped us after about four minutes, and when we pulled the buckets off of our heads, we were on the wrong side of the shelter moving in the opposite direction after accidentally pulling a 180 and following the wrong line of flags. It was extremely disorienting and a bizarre shock to my senses to pull off the bucket and be so far from where I thought we were.

After that, we had some ham radio training using old korean war hardware, and ran a medical emergency scenario. This was a great reminder that my medical skills have fallen off significantly after not ski patrolling for several years.

Radio training inside the Jamesway shelter.

Tomorrow I'll get back to Yeti. We're working on diagnosing some bizarre behavior in the code and I've been slamming my head against a wall and hoping for a breakthrough soon. It's certainly not dire and we have a number of days to make everything work, but I'd really like to get everything working perfectly so we can get some real science done with the radar.

The whole album of photos is up on Picasaweb here:

Antarctica 2010 - Yeti Robot

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yeti's First Steps

Today was a big day. After meeting the traverse team in the morning, Jim and I headed over for my fifth orientation briefing. This one was an in-depth hour long presentation on how to drive a pickup truck, which basically boiled down to simple point that you need to unplug it before you start driving, since the trucks have electric heaters to keep the oil from freezing at -40.

After the briefing, we headed over to our workspace in the 'Incinerator Building,' which is actually a lot nicer than it sounds. Aside from the fact that I'm working next to open barrels of gasoline keeps a pungent aroma of volatile organics wafting through the air to keep me pleasantly sedated as I work, the shop space is quite nice.

After unpacking our five crates of gear and equipment, we took Yeti out for a spin. After crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, it was excellent to see that Yeti was working out of the box, at least in manual control mode. I'll need to make some updates to the code to enable Yeti to drive autonomously down here. In a classic case of hilariously bad coding, we wrote our initial code to interpret very specific messages from the GPS. Since all of the development was done in the Northeast, we never had to deal with the extra character that comes from being at 166 degrees longitude. Changing that isn't hard, but testing the code is surprisingly challenging, since it involves loading Yeti up into a pickup truck and driving it out onto the ice. Iteratively testing code is pretty tricky since the turnaround time is on the order of an hour or more.

Yeti out for the inaugural drive with McMurdo and Observation Hill in the background.

My next post will be all about what I'm assuming most people actually care about - the people and life at McMurdo. Let me know if you're curious about anything else!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

McMurdo at Last

A lot has happened in the last couple days. I apologize for the lack of posts lately, I'll be writing daily from here on out, usually posting around 3am eastern time.

After a weather delay which kept us in Christchurch for an extra day, we shipped out at 5am this morning to board the C-17 for our ice flight. I narrowly made my shuttle after bolting out of bed late, worried that I might not make it on the flight. We arrived at the US Antarctic Program headquarters to suit up in Extreme Cold Weather gear and do our final packing, which was a little more complicated than a normal flight. You get a small carryon, a large checked bag, and a 'boomerang bag.' In the event of stormy weather which would prevent the plane from landing at McMurdo, the boomerang bag is the only bag that will be returned to us when we land in New Zealand, so that has to contain nothing that we want on the flight, but everything we would need if we had to stay another few days in Christchurch.

After suiting up in our gear, we had a 'hurry up and wait' situation before another video briefing (number 2), then passing through customs and security. I was surprised to see that we have to go through the equivalent of pre-9/11 airport security. We then bussed out to the tarmac and boarded the C-17 in a single-file line of 70 ridiculously overdressed and sweaty people wearing bright red ECW jackets.

Our flight attendants were all air force 'loadmasters' who were in charge of stacking us in between cargo pallets and bags. I was told that the total lift capacity of the plane is around 170,000 lbs, which is enough to lift the largest tanks the US uses. I don't have much more time on internet so I'll let pictures speak instead.

Looking over the Mountains about an hour outside of McMurdo

Gracie has been kind enough to show me around and not treat me like a total fungi (FU***** New Guy on the Ice).

One of the great things about this trip is meeting all sorts of interesting people. This is 'Diesel' showing off her sporty calculator watch from 1995.

Unloading on the ice sheet downhill of McMurdo.

Immediately after unloading the plane, I got onto a bus and took this photo. The girl in the photo looked at me and said "Eric Trautmann? Didn't you go to Ithaca High School?" Turns out Anna and I sat next to each other in 9th grad social studies class. This is the third extremely small world experience I've had so far on this trip, at this point I'm just expecting it.

These are my accommodations for the next week before we head out to the shear zone on the ice.

McMurdo isn't the most beautiful town in the world, but the surrounding scenery is breathtaking. More photos to come.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I touched down yesterday and feel like I stepped straight into the '90s. While New Zealand is technically considered a developed country, it seems to take between 6 months and 15 years for new concepts, trends, and technologies to reach the country :) I wrote this yesterday, but my internet 'ran out' so now's the first time I could upload it.

Here's my post from Yesterday:

As a disclaimer, this post is devoid of any technically interesting content since I'm 'trapped' in New Zealand for two days without the robot or any of my colleagues. I've been forced to endure the harsh realities of attempting to fill downtime as an adventurer in New Zealand (while writing some Matlab code on the side to keep things fun). I arrived in Christchurch today after a seemingly unending series of flights, and my body has no idea what time it is, but I generally feel good to go. In the last eight weeks, I can count the number of times I've gotten more than five hours of sleep with three fingers, so the plane ride was a nice chance to catch up on sleep and watch some bad movies.

I met a series of incredibly cool people along the way, however, which reaffirmed the positive side of my love-hate relationship with long haul travel. I met a woman who works on the Patagonia's catalogs, who may help me try to make it into a catalog. I also met a another researcher named Sally Walker who is a professor studying fossilized single-cellular organisms in the dry valleys of Antarctica. She absolutely obliterated me in the competition for how much gear we each brought. Her checked baggage totaled somewhere close to 350 pounds and included a full sized imaging microscope. The majority of my cargo weight is in books, computers, and my toolbox, all of which I managed to fit into a large backpack. I figured the contents of the backpack were actually fairly sketchy if one were to inspect the bags, as they included an assortment of random electronics parts, hand tools, and books about ballistic missiles and tracking systems, which are obviously unrelated to my work here in Antarctica.

Sally and I met at the baggage claim, and followed a trail of painted penguin tracks to the US Antarctic Program building adjoining the airport. We dropped the majority of our gear and I got to wander around the voluminous warehouse that is the clothing distribution center (CDC). The inside of the warehouse is crammed full of racks and stacks of ruthlessly organized gear, with a team of people running around organizing kits of extreme cold weather (ECW) gear for those of us who'll deploy on Monday. The gear is highly utilitarian, however, so I'm going to look for some comfy merino wool baselayers when I get into town.

Racks of jackets at the Clothing Distribution Center

Each of us will receive one of these kits of ECW gear.

All of these boxes contain nothing but long underwear.

I won't be issued gear until Sunday, when we receive a full briefing and meet the other people on our ice flight, so I'll wait until then to go into more detail. It appears, however, that everyone is issued a standard set of aggressive colored gear, most notably, a bright red puffy jacket designed to be visible from 30 miles away on the ice.

After dropping our gear, Sally and I took a shuttle into Christchurch and checked into our hotels. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch about three weeks ago, and I was unsure what level of damage we'd see downtown. The earthquake was on the same order as that in Haiti, but it appears that the building codes here were strict enough that most of the damage is minor. Walking around downtown, it's clear that there was some damage to the facades and masonry of some buildings, but it mostly appears to be superficial damage. I'd characterize it as a large amount of relatively minor damage, with maybe 20% of buildings having some sort of scaffolding around them, making Christchurch resemble any city in China. Apparently zero people died in the quake, which is astounding given the magnitude of the quake and the number of people living close to the epicenter.

This is about the worst of the damage that I saw. Most of the other buildings have a few cracks in the masonry but not much else. I've hear that there is far worse damage elsewhere in the city, but haven't seen it myself.

I spent the afternoon walking around downtown, and ended up around dinnertime at a bar/restaurant Dux de Lux, which was recommended to me by every single person I talked to prior to this trip. Within thirty seconds of sitting down, I thought I recognized the girl sitting at the table next to me. It turns out I had climbed with her a couple of times at the Metrorock gym in Boston a little over a year ago. The climbing community never ceases to amaze me by how small it feels. Three days ago, I found out that I'm on the same ice flight as a girl named Gracie, who I met on a climbing trip last September in Oregon.

I ended up hanging out with Katie and five of her friends for the evening, and making plans to head to Flock hill, a beautiful bouldering area in the mountains outside of the city. I've got one more day to go here in Christchurch then I gear up and ship out on Sunday evening and Monday morning. I'm currently 7 hours behind east coast time and it's time for my body to catch up with sleep.