Communications on Ice: Managing a Radio Network in Antarctica

Communications-on-ice_300x300Anthony Hoffman’s move to Antarctica was completely unplanned. One day he was Senior Hardware Design Engineer with Tait Communications’ custom integration team in Christchurch, the next he had signed up as Communications Engineer at New Zealand’s scientific research station in Antarctica.

He is currently working his third 13-month stint on the ice. In this article he shares the triumphs and challenges of managing multiple communications networks in one of the harshest environments on the planet.

My very-abrupt shift in career came about in 2010. Initially, when I was presented with the Antarctic position, it did not sound at all appealing, working in the cold and dark for months on end. Until they mentioned free food and cheap beer!

In what now seems like a blur, I found myself in a new home here at Scott Base on Ross Island in Antarctica, right next door to the American McMurdo Station and with an active volcano, Mt. Erebus in the neighborhood.

Communications on iceIMG_9501My responsibilities primarily involve maintenance and operations of two-way radio networks, the telephone network and the satellite link (voice and data) between Scott Base and New Zealand. Apparently it’s not an easy task to find someone familiar with all three technologies, who is also prepared to be away from home for a continuous 13 month period. However, two-way radio is my specialist field, and I had maintained telephone networks in the past. I was given brief training at a satellite ground station, but the final specialist training was cancelled due to the 2010 Christchurch earthquake. So it was a steep self-learning curve on the cryptic Nortel telephone exchange language, how to fusion splice optical fiber cables and many more new skills.

Scott Base is operated by Antarctica New Zealand and while I’m not employed by this government entity, I share some responsibilities with their staff. This includes doing duty as fire crew, kitchen hand, bartender, plus offering my technical skill-set to others on base, including the electrician and science technician. (Prior to deployment, Antarctica New Zealand provides two-weeks of intensive Antarctic awareness training and firefighting.) Other responsibilities that come my way include repairing all things electronic, and of course DJ duties for our FM radio station.

The majority of my daily work is with two-way radio as this is our primary form of communications. With no cellular network, reliable radio communications are crucial to operations and safety.

Hoopers_view_southThe local area is served by a network of Tait VHF FM analog base stations with Codan HF radio used for deep field work. Mountaintop radio sites are solar powered and are deployed by helicopter in October each year at the beginning of the summer season. With no sun to provide power over winter, the radio equipment and batteries are returned to Scott Base each February at the end of the summer science season.

The telephone and satellite network infrastructure is a mixture of modern analog and digital equipment which usually requires little attention, but the ability to fault-find is essential if and when it fails. The satellite link delivers more than ten off-continent telephone circuits and a number of leased data circuits, ranging in speeds from 32kB/sec to 1.5MB/sec which provide email, internet and other services. When a problem arises, it can be challenging to restore essential communications quickly.

Over summer, the scientists often need training and support with unfamiliar communications equipment. They also have specialist electronic equipment that invariably breaks at some point and needs urgent repairs.

Summer_handover_flag_ceremonyYear-round, field communications at sub-zero temperatures present many challenges. For example the best portable radio battery chemistry for performance in the cold is Ni-Cad, however most manufacturers no longer support this older technology in favour of Lithium batteries, which perform poorly at low temperatures.

In winter we’re left with a skeleton crew, between 10 and 14 staff. The long dark haul from March to October is when we maintain, upgrade and keep things working. I’ve completed many hardware and software projects over past winters, including telemetry systems to remotely monitor and control radio sites, technical documentation and general improvements. There are no flights between March and August, so careful planning is required to get all parts pre-ordered and delivered before that final flight in March. You can’t possibly plan for every eventuality, so you become very good at improvising and making do with what you’ve got.

Black_Island_damaged_connectorWorking outside in winter is difficult and time-consuming. For example, coaxial cable cannot flex at -40ºC without shattering the insulation. Flex the cable a little too far and it shatters, and you have to start again. It’s impossible to terminate a connector while wearing thick gloves, so you need to work with bare hands. Your hands become numb after 20 seconds, so you then need to spend several minutes warming them inside your thick jacket before doing a little more. This is why a one minute job of terminating an N-type connector can take several hours.

LC130_ski_HercReturning to New Zealand at the end of the 13-month contract is a most unusual and disconcerting experience. When you step off the US Air Force C-17 at Christchurch Airport, the air is hot and humid. Traffic and cut grass smell intense. Common sights like busy roads, rain, children, dogs, television and advertising all seem alien.

I’m often asked if I’ll do another season.

Certainly it is interesting work, but what keeps me returning most of all, is the great people I have the pleasure of working with. They’re all handpicked for their skillsets, their ability to work together as a team, and to live together as a family.


This article is taken from Connection Magazine, Issue 6. Connection is a collection of educational and thought-leading articles focusing on critical communications, wireless and radio technology.

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