31 January 2007

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

It’s been a busy few days. We fly out to the boat in two days and so it’s a mad rush to get everything done. Tom, Amanda, and First Born have been very busy outside with the AWS unit, setting it up with the wind turbines and solar panels. It looks fantastic and they have done an excellent job.

It’s been pretty cold these last days, and they have been outside most the time, coming back looking frozen. Today the wind turbine was finally working, and tomorrow we install all the AWS and communications equipment.

In the meantime, I have been inside working on the networking systems (writing scripts etc). It’s been warmer work than that of my colleagues but possibly a little bit more boring! 😉

Still, today was rewarding. I was looking for a way to restart the computer that will be in the AWS. If the batteries fail in the unit (if there is a storm during winter or other reason), then we need a way to power the computer on once the batteries have recharged. There are a number of ways this could be possible with some machines (bios settings for example) but this computer supports none of them. The computer has an on/off button which, if depressed momentarily, starts up the computer. So, we needed a circuit to solve this. After wedging off a plastic panel, it appears that shorting out the button momentarily would also start the computer.

So, we needed a circuit that would do this automagically. I wondered if a relay would do this. A relay will close a circuit when power is applied, but it couldn’t do this on its own, so I emailed some friends. We had excellent brainstorming sessions, and Mr Snow and Matthew Biederman helped shape the idea of what was necessary. But we had no circuit. So I visited Pierre (one of the scientists here) and naively asked him if a series of relays might do the trick. Before I knew it, Pierre had sketched out a circuit on some paper and helped me source the parts. I built it, but it didn’t work… so, Pierre then troubleshot the circuit, which took a good 6 hours or so. I could mumble some agreements, and nod a few times, while Pierre whizzed through the possible causes for many problems we were having with the circuit. Finally, we had a circuit that works. It might look a little crazy, but it does the job.

So now, if the batteries fall below 6 volts, the computer is more than likely to be turned off. Then when the power rises, at 10 volts the circuit triggers some relays, one of which short circuits the on-button for half a second or so and the laptop starts. Pierre is now drawing the circuit diagram and tomorrow we will publish it if anyone wants to use such a thing.

Anyways, off to bed now, a big day tomorrow.

29 January 2007

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

Today was a big day for Tom and First Born. They have been working really hard on the AWS unit, preparing it for installation, and today it actually goes out to the field. I think they had to wait quite a long time before the crane crew could get through the other tasks they had for the day, but just before dinner, the AWS was swung out on the crane and placed on the back of a Skidoo. After dinner, I think they will try and place it upright, although it’s getting pretty windy out there right now. In the meantime, I’m inside testing the scripts for delivering the data from the unit to the WWW.

We brought down some projects to enact on behalf of artists. We didn’t have much time to prepare for the trip, so I managed only to get four projects, plus we are assisting the Media Shed in Southend by the Sea (UK) to do some workshops using weather data.

Today I pulled Tijmen Schep’s ‘Coke Bot’ out of the suitcase and soldered up its solar panel. It’s a cool installation that is a coke can (pretty much the last thing you want to see in Antarctica) with a noise robot inside that beeps and is powered by a small solar panel. I really like it; it’s a cool installation for here as it plays with the ironies of reusable energy and recycled materials. Tomorrow I will put it out on the ice and document it, and then leave it inside the base for the next I-TASC crew.

There are some other projects by artists but I’ll unveil them as we install/utilise them. Look for documentation of Tijmen’s can tomorrow.

Advice from the bottom of a well, Part III : basic tools, and cameras
tools
All right… this will be a short session on what to bring for a SANAE residency. They have pretty much everything here, so you don’t need to bring much (unless you need specialised tools). In fact they have a very well-equipped workshop for electronics, a carpentry room and a metal shop, so you can do quite a bit here if you have to… so there is not much you need.  I mention just a few things that can be handy… personally I think you should not even cross the road without a good Leatherman or Victorinox. I have one of the later, and it proves useful almost everyday and unequal in the field when you need to do almost anything.

Additionally, I think you need to at least bring a soldering kit and all the wires and cables you can expect to use. Don’t bring pre-made cables, they are always too expensive and too chunky to freight in any quantity. Buy as many different types of connectors as you can.

Bring a roll of gaffer tape… it’s always useful….

That’s about all I have found that is useful… for everything else I used what they have here….

Cameras
Some small advice with cameras… get a good digital camera. I don’t mean a pocket-size cam, I mean a good SLR camera with interchangeable lenses. Don’t settle for anything less than 6 megapixels. You won’t regret it. I purchased a second-hand Canon 300D with a 18-55mm lens. In addition, I brought a screw-on wide angle adapter which had produced some good shots but I think the wide angle is optional. What you shouldn’t do without, is a telephoto… its absolutely essential. You will see many things from the boat that you can’t get close to (penguins, birds, whales, icebergs) that will look beautiful in a telephoto but like a dot in a 18-55mm lens or similar.

Whatever camera you get, don’t leave without _two_ rechargeable batteries. There are periods when you are away from the base for a day or so and you will need that extra battery. Also, don’t even think about coming without a polarising filter. It will help cut through the glare of the water and bring out the beautiful blues of the ice and the sky… it’s really essential. Lastly, get a small camera bag that has good padding, that you can sling over your shoulder and run out the door at a moment’s notice. Nothing too heavy, just big enough for your camera and your lenses.

Of course, make sure you have lens cleaner stuff etc (all the normal camera things).

If someone in your team has a small digital camera, this will still be very useful for having in your pocket if you need a quick shot but you are somewhere awkward (on the end of a rope in a crevasse for example).

26 January 2007

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

Ambitious Elements
Today is the day Remmy and I got ambitious with the antenna building. We decided we were going to go and build a much stronger yagi antenna after being encouraged by the success of the first design. So we loaded up the yagi design program and designed an antenna with 8 elements which gives us 14 dBi gain. The first antenna we had was 7.9dBi and the one we made a few days ago was 12.2 dBi. So if this works, it’s going to be quite a significant improvement.

We decided to use an all-metal boom which changes the design a little bit. With 8 elements, the lengths we had to cut are as follows:

LENGTH		BOOM POSITION
144mm		120mm	
142mm		179mm
140mm		250mm
138mm		331mm
136mm		423mm
135mm		521mm
133mm		625mm
132mm		733mm

Additionally, we needed what is known as a ‘reflector’ which is 170mm long and placed at 30mm on the boom, and ‘radiating element’ which is 148mm and placed at 96mm on the boom. So Remmy worked on the elements (and reflector and radiator) and I worked on the boom.

All materials are recycled from the HF Radar at the back of the base. The boom was a little more tricky to drill holes in than the PVC and with less room for error but with a little hacking, we got it looking pretty good.

Then we inserted all the elements at and pop-riveted them to the boom.

Last to add was the ‘radiator’ as this needs to be insulated from the rest of the antenna. We searched around and within a few minutes I found a small piece of electrical cable which we stripped and it fitted perfectly over the radiator.

So, now we have a very robust antenna which should deal with the high winds pretty well. If it works (will be tested in the next few days), we will use the PVC antenna inside and the larger one we built today at the unit.

Advice from the bottom of a well, Part II : Coffee, Computers, Correspondence

Coffee
If you are on your way to Antarctica, one thing you will already know is that there aren’t many espresso cafes here. Worse than a continent without espresso is the coffee at the base. By the time you get to the base you are drinking the leftover packets of last year’s filtered coffee… eeek… so you need a solution for your caffeine addiction and here it is

This is a portable one cup espresso maker… you just unscrew the top, clean the filter, pour in the water, add the coffee, and plug it in. It takes about 3 minutes before you have excellent espresso. The important thing about this gadget is that it runs off electricity. You won’t get much of a chance to access the kitchen, so any ‘stove top’ espresso makers are out… a coffee press is also a good strategy but this one is better 😉

Computers
Ok, well the thing is, you need to come with as much software as possible as there is no chance to download software over a 1K connection… If you run Windows or Mac then you just need to try and think what you need in advance and download it before you come… If you are slightly geeky then you are in a better situation. The best idea is to install Debian as it’s super for portability. Once Debian is installed, you need to download all the CD sources from a Debian mirror and copy the contents of these disks to your computer. Then you can apt-get install any software you want straight off your hard disk without needing to download anything…

This is a _major_ advantage, and if you feel like going the Linux way then it would really be worth getting familiar with it before you go installing it and considering this strategy.

Correspondence
If you are coming here, there are a few things you should do before you leave:
* download all your email
* unsubscribe from any email lists you might be on
* set up an auto responder (you will be about 2 weeks on the boat without mail access)
* ask someone to read your email and forward only the necessary correspondence
* setup your auto responder email message to tell all your friends *NO ATTACHMENTS*
* make sure you have a SPAM filter working which is server-side not client-side

Email here is actually functioning quite well (if you use an smtp client… don’t try and use something like Mutt or webmail which requires a direct connection to the net). The above steps are really for managing the travel here so when you arrive you don’t have to download 2000 emails. Once here, you can operate pop-email more or less normally.

If you want to chat with someone in real-time, it’s not impossible over the 1K connection. You need to use ‘internet relay chat’ (IRC). It is a super lightweight system for text chat, and sends minimal data over the network. You can then chat away very easily in real-time, even over this slow connection. Forget Aim, Gaim, MS Chat (or whatever it is), Skype etc…they will not work. If you don’t know what IRC is, then please google it before you come, and train yourself and those you want to chat with before you come here. IRC has been excellent for me, I chat with my girlfriend Lotte a couple of times a week for some hours with occasional timeouts: this has been especially good, considering they only allow 2 calls a week for 10 minutes each (and these are mostly only to South Africa unless you are lucky).

24 January 2007

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

Yesterday Amanda and Tom went to Gronehogna to test the home-made antenna we made the day before. I was a bit nervous because I wasn’t sure if it would work or not. Making an antenna out of PVC pipe and old HF Radar elements, with extra bits of gaffer tape to hold it together seemed unlikely to really do the business. Also, we didn’t know they were going until about an hour before they left, so we had no time to make any adjustments. The antenna had to go as is (although we made a quick mounting bracket and mounted the antenna to an old broom handle). First then posed for a picture with the antenna and newly acquired broom handle and tried to look tough 😉

They left in the Challengers which takes a few hours, so in the meantime, First and I prepared the other modems and the equipment he would take to Lorenzo Piggen. The idea was to do the tests in the same order as we had done them 4 days earlier, which was this:
1. SANAE – Gronehogna (yagi-to-yagi)
2. Lorenzo Piggen – Gronehogna (omni-to-yagi)
3. SANAE – Lorenzo Piggen – Gronehogna (yagi-to-omni-to-yagi)
4. Lorenzo Piggen – Gronehogna (yagi-to-yagi)

The home made yagi antenna would be at Gronehogna the whole time and would be the only one used at that site. With the earlier test with the manufactured antenna, we got about 15% signal, yagi-to-yagi between Lorenzo Piggen and Gronehogna, and no signal to speak of using the omnidirectional antenna at Lorenzopiggen.

So, off they went. We decided to do the tests at 1500, and change every ten minutes. We had to decide on this beforehand as they had no radio equipment at Gronehogna that would go the distance, so we had to hope that Tom and Amanda would be there in enough time and we would then do the tests ‘deaf’ (so to speak). When 1500 spun around, we tried the connection. I could talk to First Born at Lorenzo Piggen but we could not talk to Gronehogna, so we had to go with our instincts a bit. I was pretty disappointed that we got no signal on all tests. First and I then agreed we would hold on a little longer, as the new antenna (if it worked at all) would be more directional than the ones we used earlier, so it might take them a little longer to ‘find target’. So we waited an extra few minutes, and bingo – we had 50% signal. Amazing! I was very excited. Just to be sure, I shut down the systems at SANAE so we could tell that this was actually signal coming from Gronehogna and not from the equipment I was using at SANAE. I shut down the modem and First reported the signal was still strong. He then opened a browser (we had a computer connected to each modem) and he could see the web pages we had setup on the machine they took to Gronehogna. First said it loaded instantly! Great!

The trick was, however, that this connection was yagi-to-yagi which is not what we would use in the final setup so we had to quickly switch to omni-to-yagi, the omnidirectional antenna being at Lorenzo Piggen. So First had to change the antenna very quickly as we were afraid that if we disconnected from the yagi for too long, Tom and Amanda would not see signal and would assume we had stopped the tests. To do this he would have to hold the omnidirectional antenna as he would not have time to mount it on the pole. So it was a bit hacky, but it wasn’t worth the risk of Tom and Amanda thinking we had stopped the tests and packing up before we could confirm the final set-up could work.

So First switched the antenna in the cold in record breaking time, with just a few tens of seconds downtime (he asked Luta, one of the crew that went with him, to hold the antenna). I turned on the modem here and ….. 30% signal! Great! First loaded their web page again to confirm the connection and it seems that our homebrew antenna was really doing a great job.

It wasn’t till Tom and Amanda returned that we learnt they had real difficulties setting up in the snow there (there was a storm) and that they didn’t have difficulties ‘finding target’. They couldn’t get the system working for some time, which was why we got no signal through the tests, but as soon as they were set up and turned on the modem they got 50% signal immediately. The fact that they had bad weather there was bad for them but in terms of the signal tests, it was a better situation for the tests than the earlier one as the first test was a perfect day. If we get 50% signal with some snow around, then it’s a very good sign. Tom apparently had also logged onto the IRC (chat) running on my computer at SANAE which is even better! Great.

So we know now the radio systems will work. Additionally, we can build a stronger antenna than this one,  one that is also more robust. It shouldn’t take more than about 4 hours to do. So now we await the discussions between Tom and the SANAE management about whether they can get us to Gronehogna before we leave in 9 days….