Rugged laptops brave the rainforest

Rugged laptops are said to withstand heat, cold, moisture and pretty much anything else Mother Nature can throw at them. What happens when one is taken to the tropical rainforest?

Margaret Dalzell Lowman, Ph.D., isn't called "Canopy Meg" because she spends her time in the comfy corner office. Actually, it's quite the opposite. Lowman spends the better part of her life in the canopies high above the tropical rainforest.

As a canopy biologist, Lowman has pioneered methods and protocols for research in treetop biodiversity, including the use of different canopy access techniques such as ropes, walkways, hot air balloons, construction cranes and various combinations of those methods. But gathering data became quite a chore when dealing with a laptop that was too heavy and often couldn't withstand the rainforest and its wet and humid conditions.

According to Lowman, who is also director of environmental initiatives and professor of biology and environmental studies at the New College of Florida, her last laptop would be tucked in plastic bags and packed with silica gel packs to keep the heat and moisture at bay. Most of the time, she said, she was apprehensive about using a laptop up in the canopy for fear of damaging the machine, losing the data, or running out of battery power. Instead, she would carry pencils and paper, which could stand up to unforgiving treatment in the rainforest.

She's been in locations where 13 rain showers fell in one day -- or four inches of rain in less than an hour – conditions that Lowman said are "beyond the ability to take a picture with a camera lens, let alone use a laptop."

Notebook-maker Lenovo recently equipped Lowman and four other world-renowned scientists with rugged notebook PCs. Lowman said this is her first rugged laptop, but she could have used it while surveying the canopy in such places as Cameroon, Africa; Australia; Peru; and Belize.

"I can drag it around in these locations and not worry," she said.

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The ruggedized notebooks can handle the challenging, hostile environments these scientists endure in the name of research, according to Lenovo. The ThinkPad X60s ultra-portable notebooks are small and weigh three pounds; they include a shock-mounted hard drive, an airbag-like Active Protection System, and rescue and recovery features that protect data. They are designed to survive extreme heat and cold and make it through extremely wet or dry conditions.

According to Lenovo, IT staff, scientists and statisticians have taken ThinkPads everywhere from treks on Mt. Everest to space missions for NASA. Lowman said she's already put her ThinkPad to use in the Florida forest but will soon venture with it to Antarctica, where it will truly be put to the test.

"I spend a lot of time on a rope or in a hot air balloon," Lowman said. "I need field gear that is light and can work in different conditions. I would often not even take a laptop with me because it wasn't durable."

Lowman added that her research and the researches of other canopy biologists have been hampered by the lack of adequate technology. She noted, however, that this is starting to turn around.

"We've been inhibited by not being able to take the technology into the field," she said, adding that rugged notebooks, portable photosynthesis readers, and GPS systems have helped her and her colleagues. "We need tools for rigorous data collection. This is very important, and research is needed."

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