Feature

Voyage of discovery for computer giants

The MS Starship is on the final leg of its three-year journey around the globe. Patrick Hook takes a look at the work of this floating computer

Sponsored by some of the world's largest technology companies, including Microsoft, Sony and Olympus, the MS Starship and her crew of eight are two-thirds of the way through their three-year global odyssey of exploration and scientific research. And each day, a daily log of projects and pictures are made available to millions on the Internet.

The 23m, 90-tonne ship, built in the US, owned by a German, captained by a Briton and manned by an international crew, was specially designed and constructed for this journey of discovery. "Our sponsors," says Michael Poliza, the project leader and owner of the Starship, "were chosen for their technical expertise."

He adds, "Their contribution has extended well beyond the financial and has involved the participation of their experts in the design of the onboard communications, film making and editing, computing and navigational technologies.

"Deutsche Telekom, for example, helped in the provision of the satellite communications link, while Olympus and Sony supplied and fitted the digital photography and video equipment we have onboard.

"There was also the problem of ensuring that nothing electronic interfered with our navigational or sonar or other safety-related equipment and this was done by Sony engineers who travelled from Germany to Seattle while the ship was being built."

Due to arrive in Hamburg on 21 June, Poliza will have spent 1,000 days circling the globe with a permanent crew of four (himself, his girlfriend, a British captain and his wife) and four volunteers, who change every six months.

"At the moment the volunteers come from New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and the US,"says Poliza. We have been anxious to ensure that the input remains truly international."

Since leaving Bell Harbour, Seattle, on 17 September 1998, the ship has passed through the Panama Canal twice, around the Caribbean, down the east coast of South America and across the Pacific. Names that evoke romantic notions of far off places have come and gone. Galapagos, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji and Tonga all slipped astern as Starship made its way to New Zealand and Australia.

Designed from the keel up, the ship is a floating wonder of modern technology. In addition to the latest navigation and communications equipment - EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) satellite positioning equipment for use in an emergency, the latest sonar and navigational aids, an Inmarsat high-speed data communications facility for global connectivity and a telemedicine link - it is also fitted with extensive computer technology.

"The principle objective of this trip is to raise awareness about issues of marine biology," says Poliza, who dreamt up the idea of the journey. "This has meant telling people about the progress of the trip on a daily basis and we have achieved that through daily updates on our Web page.

"Of course, communicating our news has only been one aspect of the use to which the 25-node Lan has been put. Computers control almost every aspect of the ship from navigation, to issues of safety, to keeping tabs on our supplies."

But there is no doubt that the need to keep people all over the world fully informed of the research being undertaken and the projects initiated has been a major part of the work of the computer and satellite communications technologies.

Every evening someone writes up the day's journal, to which is added a number of digital images of underwater sea life, birds or (occasionally) beautiful tropical islands. Then, using Microsoft's Front Page 2000 software, the new page is designed and agreed before being sent to the ISP in Oregon, US.

Cost considerations mean that the project's Web site is not permanently online, although e-mails are sent and received for a few minutes, four times a day.

Every six hours an onboard computer router is automatically switched on and, via a Microsoft exchange server, initiates a connection with the ISP. In the course of the following few minutes, e-mails, Web page updates and digital images are sent in a rapid, two-way, flow of information, via a 64kbpsInmarsat-B HSD (high speed data) satellite link to Oregon.

Actually, the satellite signals touch down at the Inmarsat land earth station belonging to Deutsche Telekom in Raisting, Germany before being routed to Oregon on an ISDN line, but the consequent time delay is less than two seconds.

A major part of the routine of the trip is photography and filming which, because of its digital format, quickly had a knock-on effect on the amount of available computer memory. Originally designed with 100Gbytes of memory, the system quickly had to be expanded by a factor of 10, to a staggering 1.2Tbytes.

"We have had to become competent in the use of this equipment as we went along," says Poliza. "Apart from the permanent crew who received proper training, the temporary crew were chosen for particular skills like marine biology and diving. They have all had to learn computer skills - and cooking, sailing, cleaning the decks and much more."

And the plans for the future? "When we get back to Hamburg, I guess we will take a break of a month or two, sailing around the Baltic and then, maybe spend a year or two on the west coast of America, filming marine life between Alaska and the Sea of Cortez," says Poliza.

Life can be very good.

MS Starship: onboard imaging

  • ES7 Sony editing suite with the capacity for three hours of high-quality online storage on hard disc

  • Two DSR 85 DV video recorders

  • DSR 70 portable editing stations

  • 12 different kinds of digital video (DV Cam) cameras including Sony DSR 300, DSR 200, PD 100 and DX 1000

  • High-end microscopes from Olympus are connected to the video systems

  • High-end digital camera from Olympus

  • Infrared camera - used for night navigation in confined areas and to photograph wildlife

  • IT&T third generation light intensifier unit with a 50,000x magnification for clear night vision

    Ship's manifest

  • Dell and Sony Pentium II and Pentium III laptop and desktop computers are linked together in a 25-node, 100Mbyte Ethernet Lan at processing speeds of between 450 and 900MHz

  • Operating systems are Windows 98 ME and Windows 2000 for the two servers onboard. Two workstations, one of which is dedicated to the navigation, run on Windows NT4

  • 1,200Gbytes of online storage

  • Two colour printers and one laser printer deal with hardcopy

  • Six CD burners


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    This was first published in January 2001

     

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