Karel at work on the satellite dish - © International Polar Foundation

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Karel Moerman on Radio Communications at PEA

A trained electrician with 12 years of experience, Karel Moerman handles radio communications in addition to his primary job of maintaining the electrical systems at PEA.

What is your role in the PEA team?

My main job is dealing with everything related to the station’s electrical systems. I work together with Erik Verhagen most of the time. As Erik and Johan mentioned, this year we solved problems with the back-up generators, which was a very important accomplishment.

But as a hobby, I’m an amateur radio enthusiast, which means I’m very familiar with operating radios, how to improve radio communications, and so on. So I’ve been put in charge of radio communications at PEA.

You’ve made some improvements to the radio communications network this year.

This season, we put a new VHF (very high frequency) radio relay antenna on Romnoes Nunatak, which is on the way out to the coast. When they had some spare time the pilots helped us transport the parts for the radio relay antenna to Romnoes. They weren’t obliged to help us, but they wanted to lend a hand, so we’re very grateful to them. The relay runs on three batteries which are regularly charged via four solar panels. Each battery weighs 75 kg, and the solar panels are heavy, so you can understand why we appreciated the help!

Now we can communicate with people as far as 160 km away from the station! The last time a convoy was going to the coast, I was working outside the station and talking with the convoy on a small 5 Watt radio!

We’ve also replaced the batteries in the radio antenna on top of Utsteinen Nunatak next to the station.­ They had frozen during the last overwintering, so they had to be changed.

What exactly does the relay do?

VHF radio - the kind used for hand-held radios – works by line of sight. Both antennae need to be able to “see” one another. So you can communicate as far as the horizon goes without obstacles by VHF radio. The maximum range from the station without any relay assistance for VHF radio is a maximum of 60 km.  If you install a relay, it essentially extends the horizon.

The antennae are exposed to the elements. Do you have to do regular maintenance on them?

At the beginning of each season, we do a check to make sure that everything is functioning correctly. We have to replace their batteries every so often; they usually last about three years.

What kind of radio equipment do you use for aircraft?

For aircraft, we use a different frequency from the one we use for ground communications. But it’s still on a very high frequency.

Novolazarevskaya Station is about 450 km from PEA. It takes about an hour and a half to get to PEA by plane. But we can start to communicate with them by radio halfway in between. This is a lot further than communication on the ground can reach because the plane is in the air, so the signal horizon is much further than on the ground.

Are all radio communications limited by signal horizons?

We use another radio, an HF (high frequency) radio, which can reach the other side of the planet. The antennae don’t need to be on the same horizon because radio waves of lower frequency (and thus longer wavelength) can be bounced off the ionosphere in the upper atmosphere, so we can talk to someone in Sweden if we want. With the HF radio, we can talk to Novolazarevskaya to check in each time a plane is about to leave from there, for example.

Why can’t you use and HF radio out in the field if it has such a large range?

Because HF antennae are very large, and it wouldn’t be practical to take them out into the field.  VHF antennae are tiny, and can fit on a 5 Watt hand-held radio.

If you didn’t have the radio system, how would you communicate?

We’d have to use the Iridium satellite phone, which is very expensive. Before the radio system was installed, we could spend more than €3,000 a month making calls by Iridium phone. With the radio equipment and antennae, it’s a one-time cost to buy them, and you can communicate very effectively. The radio network is a good investment.

How often do you use the radio in Antarctica?

All the time. For safety reasons, everyone needs to be able to communicate with the station and give updates on their location, especially for teams that out in the field. And of course we need to communicate with aircraft when they travel. All teams in the field must be in regular contact with the station in case there’s an emergency. If you don’t check in, it’s assumed that something’s wrong, so checking in regularly is an essential part of the safety procedures.

What radio procedures does a team going out into the field have to follow?

Each time a team goes out into the field, right after they leave, they call in to the station to do a radio check to know that both the radio at the station and their radio are working. They also have to check in from time to time.

What kind of radio equipment does the team use in the field?

Everyone has a 5 Watt hand-held radio, and there are 20 Watt radios installed in the Prinoth tractors. There’s also a radio installed in the mobile containers the scientists use as a temporary camp when they’re out in the field for a number of days. The antenna has a mast that goes up an extra 10 metres, which gives it a good range. This year, the team from AWI who were flying the Polar-6 mission at the coast was using this radio to communicate with the plane as it was flying its mission.

What about procedures for aircraft?

This year we had helicopters going into the field quite often. So we had to make sure there was always someone near the radio. GG, Johan and I worked in shifts manning the radio at the station to stay in touch with them.

The helicopter pilots had to give us a flight plan before they left – tell us how far they were going and how much fuel they had. They also had to check in each time they arrived at their destination.

Are you planning to install any other antennae this season?

This season we planned to put a relay in the Brattnipane Peaks region east form the station towards the Antarctic Plateau. If we put an antenna over there, it will make it much easier to communicate with scientists who travel out in this direction.

But the helicopters were too busy this season to be able to help us transport the material to set up the second antenna. We would need 10 people to do the job in total without the helicopters. It’s getting close to the end of the season, so I don’t think there will be any time to install them this year. Maybe if the weather cooperates we might be able to find time to do it.

We also have an idea to put another relay antenna between the one at Romneos and the coast to make it possible to talk directly to people when they’re out there. But we need to discuss possibilities with Alain first. There are no nunataks out that on which we can securely put an antenna, so we’ll have to come up with a creative solution.

And what is the satellite dish at the station used for?

The dish is used for internet communications. The main reason for building it is to allow scientists to communicate with their colleagues back home, to send data back to their labs, etc.

It’s also used to monitor and control the station’s systems from Belgium – an essential part of the station’s design.

Do you ever get a chance to do some amateur radio in your spare time?

After dinner, between 10:00 pm and midnight, I use the antenna we use to communicate with Novolazarevskaya Station to contact other amateur radio operators in the world as far away as Europe, Hawaii and Australia – using Morse code! They’re all glad to make contact with someone in Antarctica.

Author: Joseph Cheek

Picture: Karel at work on the satellite dish - © International Polar Foundation

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