Antarctic Diary: November 10th, 2003
Romeo is a digital webcam encased in a lexan cylinder and powered by four mil-grade lithium ion batteries designed to run an infantryman's night vision goggles. The cylinder is capped on one side by an optically neutral dome, machined to spec, and on the other by an aluminum plate fastened by twenty-two bolts around a small flange. Camera pictures and control are transmitted over low loss, multi-mode fiber optic cable.
Romeo was hatched at the Devon bed and breakfast in Christchurch, New Zealand in December of 2001. Over poached egges and toast principal Investigator, Tony Hansen, was discussing instrumentation with biologist Sam Bowser. Sam wanted to be able to see the sea floor under the ice at New Harbor in Antarctica year round. Dives to over 100 feet were shortened by decompression times and the physical impracticality of carrying more than two air tanks.
He knew that if he could find a way to extend his observations beyond the few minutes they could get diving, the work would blossom. On numerous ice dives Sam's team had discovered nearly one new species per week that season. Most interesting was a species of creature known as formanifera -- a single-celled animal the size of the top of a human thumb. If Tony's group could devise a camera that could resolve formanifera under fifteen feet of sea ice and ninety feet of salt water, Sam could extend his research season well into the "off" months.
Tony instantly locked into the idea he could sink a standard surveillance webcam by encasing it in thick plastic. The temps under the ocean in Antarctica never fall below or above twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit
-- well within the operation tolerance of an off-the-shelf, stock camera. All he had to do was to figure out how to power the thing and draw information from the end of a one-hundred fifty foot tether.
The design went through a number of concept changes until Tony and several students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute latched onto the notion that it was impractical to attempt to power the device from the surface. Voltage losses along the tether would be too high. In addition, repeaters would have to be installed and powered along the signal line somehow.
The design that was brought to the ice relied on the camera module to be self-powered, capable of surviving an entire antarctic research season without servicing. That meant the cam would be battery powered and to keep the cells from going completely flat they'd have to be clever about power consumption.
The camera's pictures and control signals would be transmitted through optical fiber instead of copper wire. Though nearly fifty times more expensive, signal losses would be minimal over the hundred and fifty feet of optical cable.
Jeff Blair and Scott Batocchi designed Romeo and its control module between classes. Armed with Tony's Visa number and a propensity to spend, the young engineers cruised the web and ordered an entire lab's worth of tools, electronic parts, screws, metal blanks, and gaskets. The housing was designed on laptop computers and CNC milled in the school's machine shop. The ten-inch diameter, thirty inch long lexan cylinder was purchased stock, and the optical dome into which the camera was fitted had to be cast to spec.
Power control was designed into software on a small embedded PIC processor. The camera wakes up on receiving an optical signal, goes through a pre-programmed sequence of slewing and shooting stills, ships the pictures out, then goes back to sleep. Calculations suggest that by waking the camera only once per hour for a couple seconds the four lithium ion batteries can keep the device running for five months.
Romeo arrived on the ice a few days after we did. We unpacked it in Sam Bowser's lab in the Crary building and the students set to final assembly. After a week the cam was running on the bench.
Sam's divers, Dug and Karen, arrived during the assembly process. Dug, who makes a point of spelling his name without the "o", had just finished a tour in Afghanistan as a field medic for the U.S. army and was ready to settle into a relaxing season of high-risk ice diving for Sam. Karen arrived from Columbia University in New York where she's an assistant professor of biology and medicine. Oncology is her specialty. She was also on a sabbatical from her real job and came to dive the sound in Antarctica to try something new.
Assembly and test were taking too long for the divers, who viewed every moment not diving as an opportunity to do something hazardous. After initial testing in the fish tanks at Crary, the divers requisitioned a tracked vehicle called a Pistin Bully and arranged for us to share dive space with Adam Marsh's team up at Cape Evans.
Jeff and Scott pulled a couple of all-nighters and hurried the final assembly & tweaking. So we found ourselves in the back of the Pistin Bully, humming out over the sea ice to Cape Evans some twenty five miles north of McMurdo station. Officially, I went along as team photographer, but unofficially, I had never been to Cape Evans and was interested in seeing the launching place for Scott's final, fatal expedition.
Jeff and Tony were nervous. Would the housing leak? How would the batteries and electronics react if hypersalty water flooded the housing, essentially shorting the entire device? Could we fathom the ecological problems we'd cause if the batteries melted down on the seafloor, a clear and terrible violation of the International Antarctic Treaty.
Karen had just finished Pistin Bully driving school, and she was eager to test out her new talents. Dug, always oblivious to the fact his name was the past tense of a verb, rode shotgun, and once he had Karen on course north, in true military style, his body went limp and he passed out.
Max speed of a Pistin Bully is fifteen miles-per-hour. As the twenty-five mile trip to Cape Evans stretched into two bone jarring hours, our minds drifted to one thing: getting out of the thing to pee. Though we were plenty warm in our ECWs, the temperature inside had dropped to minus twelve farenheit. The body responds to cold by removing water, and my digital camera decided to freeze to death. I spent thirty minutes trying to revive it while Tony and Jeff discussed the fallback plans should Romeo leak or fail catastrophically. Every antarctican knows the way to fight the pain of needing to pee is by keeping the mind occupied. I was doing my best to worry about my camera, even though at one point I would have tossed it out the window and followed it without concern for my survival if I could only find a place to relieve myself.
We passed islands named by Robert Falcon Scott. Now, on my third trip to the ice. I'd grown used to a continuous stream of cognitive dissonance running through the space between my ears. So "driving" past Big Razorback and Little Razorback seemed as natural as naked hip-hop table dancing.
My camera woke up a couple times, long enough for me to snap a picture of Inaccessable Island as we passed it at the pace of a small child on a bicycle.
Eventually, we could see the bright orange dive hut below the massive blue scarp of the Barne Glacier. Marsh's team had dragged the ski-equipped hut from McMurdo behind a truck and had positioned it over a hole they'd drilled with a huge augur the prior day. They'd cored three dive holes and positioned the hut over the center one. The outboard holes were necessary in case a huge seal decided to claim the hole as territory. One does not move a 1000lb bull seal from its territory. One goes somewhere else. The other holes were that place.
It wasn't more than seconds after Karen shut down the machine that every living soul unzipped within sight of each other and performed requisite biological functions.
Though the outdoor temps were about minus twenty F, it was nearly 80 inside the propane heated dive hut. A panel had been removed from the floor exposing the bright white sea ice and a three-foot circle glowing with the deep blue reactor-like light of the ocean.
Marsh and his student suited up for their dive while we prepared Romeo. Karen had not yet been "checked out" by the master diver, so on this trip Dug would serve as a member of Marsh's team and Karen would act as tender, a role she was best suited for, but undoubtably frustrated her. Driving the Pistin Bully and helping Dug on with his gear were feeble compensation for the disappointment she must have felt being so close to that dive hole and the wonders below. I know she must have felt that way, because although I had thought I would like nothing less than to immerse myself in twenty-eight degree water for an hour, the immediacy of the gear-up, the beauty of the water and the immense scenery all around made me want to be a part of it. I found myself reminding Dug and Karen that I was a certified diver, and though I had not been diving for fifteen years, it was like riding a bicycle, and by the way, they had extra tanks.
As was completely appropriate, they told me to shut up and take pictures of the "Marshans" getting wet.
Dug followed the biologists into the dive hole. We'd weighted Romeo with sixty pounds of lead based on my displacement calculations (I was the only one who remembered the formula for the volume of a cylinder), and I was quite happy when Dug reported the device was only two pounds negatively buoyant. Dug gave us the "OK" sign and followed the life line down.
The ice under our feet was fifteen feet thick. There was ninety feet of water below that, making the depth at the sea floor about one-hundred feet. (When one of us asked Dug, "How far down is it?" he replied with the diver's retort, "All the way to the bottom," reminding us the correct question had to contain the words "depth" and "sea" and "bottom", also reminding us that Dug was a very focused soldier whose capacity for mission success was inversely proportional to his ability to tell jokes. )
Karen beleyed, holding keeping tension on the rope tied to Romeo and Tony fed out the thin fiber cable he'd blasted through his Visa limit buying. When Dug positioned the cam on the bottom, Jeff fired up his laptop, connected the fiber to a small transceiver box, and connected to the cam via a web browser.
Naturally, the pictures seemed incomprehensible. Jeff figured he'd made some errors in the settings. But when the Marshan dive tenders saw the screen, they became animated and began pointing out species of sponges and algae known only to polar marine biologists and easily mistaken by laymen for crud on the computer screen.
And so for nearly an hour we watched the action on the bottom of the sea near Cape Evans, which is to say we saw a fish or two and watched a starfish fool the world of marine creatures into thinking it was moving.
Jeff beamed, as any new father would. I managed to get a peek at Jeff's laptop screen, but the dive hut was quite small and so I spent most of my time taking pictures of Karen holding the rope and trying to keep from falling into the dive hole.
After a short decompression stop under the ice, the divers emerged. Dug came up last, dragging Romeo to the surface. We pulled it out, noticing an inch or two of water in the housing. Jeff and Tony would have to take it back to the lab for a water seal redesign. At an inch per hour at one-hundred feet, the cam wouldn't last more than ninety minutes, which was a long way from the five months Bowser's team had been promised. There was work to do. Tony and Jeff discussed their plans while opening the Romeo housing to let it drain.
We secured all the dive gear, loaded up the Pistin Bully and left Cape Evans. I rode shotgun this time while Dug stretched out in the back, falling asleep in the minus twelve cabin while Jeff and Tony fired ideas to each other, machine gun style.
I watched the ice pass under us. Marveled at the fact I was seeing the same scenery that had greeted the likes of Scott and Shackelton. While she drove, Karen and I flirted with the idea of telling each other why we "really" had to come to the ice, despite the fact it had nothing to do with our chosen professions.
But we decided to keep our secrets to ourselves, and instead spoke of our favorite Marshall Crenshaw songs under the ozone free sky.