Captain Robert Falcon Scott's mission to become the first to reach the South Pole famously ended in tragedy. A double tragedy, in fact, because Scott and his crew perished after finding that a rival Norwegian team had already beaten them to the punch. They died in 1912, while attempting to walk back to the Antarctic coast, having discovered nothing but a red and blue flag marking their destination. Their only consolation was that, unlike the Norwegians, they had stopped to collect valuable geological samples and other scientific information along the way. If they'd had better technology, would they have survived?
For the sake of polar explorer Ben Saunders, who's currently in Antarctica re-tracing Scott's steps, we certainly hope so. Saunders and his companion Tarka L'Herpiniere are in the middle of a four-month, 1,800-mile expedition, without support by air or land, to re-trace and complete Scott's final journey. It's the first such attempt to do so, but the journey isn't about exploration this time: It's more a test of human endurance. It's also about pushing technology to its limits. Armed with a pair of Ultrabooks supplied by Intel, one of the pair's main sponsors, and a carbon-fiber sled packed with other devices, they will attempt to survive and blog about their journey. We met up with the pair before their outbound flight from the UK to find out exactly what they were taking with them.
Personal Sat Nav
Yes, the pair's first mission-critical purchase is a plain, old $100 Garmin eTrex 10 sat nav. They chose this model because it does away with the touchscreen, the scrolling maps and other processing-heavy features in order to deliver plain latitude and longitude measurements. It also has excellent battery life -- up to 20 hours from a couple of rechargeable AAs. As Saunders explains, the device probably won't be used for doing anything more complicated than setting waypoints.
"We're traveling along exactly the same route as Captain Scott, so we don't only need to navigate along that route, but we also need to find depots that we plan to bury on the outward journey. Scott's team built huge cairns with flags sticking out of them, but finding those depots was really nerve-racking for them. For us, we'll still stick a flag in the snow, but we'll also mark it as a GPS waypoint. We'll have two of these Garmins for redundancy, and they'll get us to within three meters of a depot."
Iridium Sat Phone and Tracker
Predictably, perhaps, Saunders and L'Herpiniere are carrying a pair of standard Iridium Extreme 9575 satellite phones ($1,300), which let them make voice calls in the remotest of locations. In addition, they're also relying on a small, 6.5-ounce (184 gram) NAL SHOUT satellite tracker, which uses the same satellite network to constantly mark their position. The NAL SHOUT costs around $850 and is designed to wake itself up from sleep mode at hourly intervals in order to upload its coordinates.
"Aside from the safety aspect, this also means we can have live tracking of our position on our website," Saunders said. "These have [gotten] much lighter over the years, and now they also double as rescue beacons and as a way to send short text messages."
Camera for stills and video
We were half-expecting the pair to be carrying an extra ruggedized shooter like Nikon's AW1, but no. For Saunders and L'Herpiniere, it's all about combining high-quality stills with high-bit rate 1080p video capture in a single device, and that's what led them to Panasonic, and in particular to the brand-new Lumix GX7 ($1,100 with kit lens). This Micro Four Thirds camera's combination of a "proper" electronic viewfinder and a 90-degree tiltable LCD display also played a role.
"We've got about 1TB of SD card storage, and we'll have to transfer and delete footage as we go. And that's where our two Ultrabooks come in," Saunders said.
Two off-the-shelf Sony VAIO Pro 11-inchers will enable the pair to create blog posts and cut and compress videos throughout their four-month mission. They chose the laptops for their carbon fiber bodies and because they weigh just 1.92 pounds (870 grams) each. As one of the trip's sponsors, Intel helped out by testing the VAIO machines down to minus 40 degrees Celsius. They also created the touch-based dashboard application you see above, to make daily blogging and communication tasks a little simpler to access in harsh environments.
The world's most remote WiFi hotspot
The Iridium satellite network is hardly known for its high bandwidth, but there are ways of achieving upload speeds beyond what a puny sat phone can get on its own. One of these is "Pilot," a huge, dome-shaped antenna designed for ships, which adds together seven larger satellite antennae to bring the bandwidth up to basic internet standards -- in the region of 128 Kbps.
Although a Pilot would be too big for Saunders and L'Herpiniere to carry, they've managed to get the same technology packed into a smaller and lighter plastic bulb that can stay in the sled. It'll be hooked up to a specialized, heavy-duty metal router (originally called the "Below Decks Unit" or BDU) and a standard WiFi access point -- with all cabling in between being PVC-insulated and designed not to turn brittle in low temperatures.
Solar mat and rechargeable batteries
Batteries don't last forever. The obvious solution to that problem would be to take a bunch of lithium-polymer rechargeable batteries and a solar panel to charge them up, and then use them to charge all the other, smaller batteries inside the laptops, phones and other devices as needed. But there's a snag: Charging a battery from another battery is woefully inefficient. If you discharge a full battery into an empty one of a similar size, you don't get anywhere near 100 percent on the second battery -- in fact it'd take several complete discharges from the first one to fill it to the brim.
The solution, courtesy of a helpful Intel engineer, is a homemade "power-distribution module" that allows all battery-powered devices to trickle-charge directly from the solar panel. The panel is a Sunload 30wp (around $700) and it connects to the power-distribution module via a Tekkeon battery that is used as a DC convertor. When it's not convenient to plug everything into the distribution module for trickle charging, three of these 58 watt-hour Tekkeons can be used as regular battery packs, at a cost of around $150 each.
The Way Forward
Saunders and L'Herpiniere landed on Antarctica on October 24th and quickly located Scott's hut at Cape Evans, which has barely been touched by time or human hands. They're now 20 days into their journey from the hut to the coast, and so far their technology seems to be holding up fine. Most of their problems stem from the cold (of course), the rationing of their freeze-dried food and from serious mood swings between grumpiness and elation as they reach each milestone. There are still weeks of hard trekking ahead of them, and you can stay tuned to their progress using the pair's Twitter account -- @scottexpedition -- or daily blog.