Feature

Tough technology: a matter of survival

When the going gets tough, technology can mean a whole lot more than convenient communications - it equals survival. But how do you select equipment to combat arctic conditions?

It sounds like something from a Boys' Own adventure, but it's really happening. This March, four Royal Marine Commandos set off to walk, entirely unsupported, some 700 miles to the North Pole. With them were sledges laden with their supplies and communications equipment - weighing some 250lbs each.

Choosing which equipment to take was a difficult task, and while full satellite communications and a fully featured PC would have been desirable, the need for minimum weight triumphed. The result is a slightly odd mixture of normal commercially available equipment and military issue hardware.

Obviously, the main problem to be overcome was that of communications. Satellite phones are heavy and offer limited battery life between recharges - given the recent fate of the Iridium network, it's a doubly good thing that this was never really seen as a serious option.

Instead, the team opted for the Magellan GSC-100 satellite communicator. This is a hybrid device, designed to enable both navigation and remote - very remote - communications. To look at, it's nothing special - a bit like an overgrown and mutated Psion WorkAbout, with a small screen and an alphanumeric keypad.

But inside the box is a fully featured GPS unit allowing satellite navigation together with a connection to the ORBComm communications network. Although this doesn't allow for voice conversations, it does enable messages to be sent and stored from and to the team on the ice. If the unit has a line-of-sight connection to a satellite, it can send and receive email-like messages. If no satellite is visible, then shorter, character-limited, messages can be uploaded from base. These are stored onboard, then downloaded to the receiver when the satellite next comes into view, in much the same way as SMS messages can be sent to a mobile phone that is switched off. In addition, the navigational functions of the GSC-100 mean that, among other features, it can receive localised weather reports.

The other advantages of this unit are two-fold. First, unlike a radio, there's no need to get out of the tent and rig up a full-size aerial before communications can be established. Second, although it is powered by conventional batteries, it is economical on power; the team will use a combination of disposable lithium cells and batteries recharged by a solar panel to run it for the duration of the trek.

For voice communications, the expedition uses a radio rather than a phone. Interestingly, although the model chosen has an excellent reputation for wilderness work, it is no longer available. It's a Spilsbury FPX 11Alpha - the Spilsbury brand was bought by Racal and all the products were discontinued. Nevertheless, spares continue to be available and the unit's robustness made it an ideal choice for the ice cap.

Power consumption remains a problem. In an effort to cut this down, the radio will be used only once or twice a week. Reducing the current drain inevitably reduces the size and weight of the batteries that are needed to maintain communications over the two-month trek, but there's nothing that can really be done about the cold. This has a tremendously detrimental effect on the power output of batteries, an effect that was illustrated graphically during training at the Institute of Naval Medicine in Gosport. The cold room there is used both for endurance training and for equipment testing, and it's common for it to be set to minus 50C. Take a notebook in there, and the battery life will drop dramatically. We saw a fully charged machine (Toshiba, as it happens, but in reality, it would have happened to any PC) lose all power in less than 15 minutes - clearly unacceptable in any situation. It was a vivid reminder of why the team could not have relied on notebooks to provide email facilities for the time they were away.

This being the military, everything taken has to have a backup in case something goes wrong. Accordingly, the team's emergency packs include a commercially available Garmin GPS unit, together with a standard-issue military communicator, and a brace of SkyStremes. These are radar-reflective (basically, they're tinfoil kites), but also double as inflatable splints - a handy duality of role.

Although the Marines were able to train and organise the trek using military resources, commercial sponsorship was necessary to meet the £100,000-plus cost of the expedition. It's a sign of the times that much of the funding has come from "dot.coms" which have willingly paid to have their badges and logos attached to the Marines' clothing. Chief sponsors were Johnny Walker (the sponsorship, in kind, looked as though it was particularly welcome), while fax-to-email company, eFax, has offered both cash and an eFax number for messages of support - 0870 1268000.

John Sabine


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This was first published in March 2000

 

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