Channeling the Inner MacGyver
Originally from the Netherlands, Erik Verhagen has now put in three solid seasons at Princess Elisaabeth Antarctica. He talks to us about daily life in Antarctica, what it means to be running a zero emission polar station, what he misses while away from home, and the resourceful art of 'MacGyvering' - finding solutions to technical problems when you're thousands of miles from the nearest hardware store.
Q: What is your job at Princess Elisabeth Antarctica?
Like most of us here, I have several tasks and duties. First, I’m the station engineer; my role is to babysit the station, making sure the technical systems are behaving and interacting well with each other. I’m also the science liaison officer, responsible for coordinating science activities and needs around the station. This also involves taking care of the scientific instruments when the scientists are not on-site. In addition, and besides also fitting in mostly anywhere, I can give a hand like everyone else here. I am originally an electronics engineer and there is always something to debug or repair.
Q: What does your daily work consist of at the station?
This depends on the time of the season. At the beginning when we fly in, at the beginning of November, the priority is to check all the systems, make sure everything can start up safely for the season, and assess the status and any damage the winter has caused. The base is unmanned between March and November, but it is still operational, with autonomous science instruments running. With Karel Moerman, our skilled electrician, we remotely keep an eye on the systems every day during the unmanned season. We make a list of everything that has to be checked once we arrive. And once we are on site, this initial assessment can take up to a week or two.
Once all the systems needed for the season are up and running, my task is to make sure these stay running. What we want to avoid is any service interruption or instability. This is especially important for the energy of course, but also for the satellite link to the rest of the world, the network and IT infrastructure and the science instruments. Then, I also perform a daily, a weekly and a monthly analysis of the energy efficiency of the station. The station is a rather complex system in this aspect and I regularly need to adapt parameters. The energy management system is of course a critical system for the efficiency, but even doing some fine-tuning on the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air conditioning) system according to the weather forecasts can help gain more efficiency.
During the manned season, there are also many improvements and new projects that have to be installed and integrated into the station and around. This requires some coordination to minimize impacts on the already running systems. Most of this planning is done in advance by Johan Berte, the station’ project manager. But we are here to plan the details, install, test, integrate and report and document what has been done.
As the season closes, at the end of February, our main task is to make sure everything is ready for the unmanned winter season. This implies thorough testing of the remote access and control capabilities of all the systems that remain active during the winter:
- the telecommunication equipment to make sure we can access the base and everything inside remotely
- the power distribution systems, including the backup generators
- the solar panels for when the Sun comes back in August
- the automation system (the computer that is managing all the sensors and actuators of the station)
- and of course the science instruments.
This is the most stressful part of the season for us. On the last day of the season, after we shut the red main door of the station while the plane waits for us, any little detail that we overlooked, or any failure on an individually insignificant sensor can have big consequences on the entire base (physical damage due to the cold or big storms) and of course on the scientific program.
Q: What do you need to carry out this work - and what's it like to develop and repair the station's systems?
So, first, I spent many years on the benches of the French state university. What this means is that I didn't learned a specific job. I stacked up knowledge and some diplomas in electronics, telecoms, applied physics and learned about many fields of science and technology. I am not sure I would be happy in a defined role inside a company, worrying only about the company's scope of supplies, making sure I am responsible for the only single thing the company is competent in. What I need the most here is to learn about other fields of competence, and especially the technical skills and knowledge of each sub-systems of the station. Fortunately there are people here who are competent in their field, and since a lot of the systems are interdependent, there is always someone to answer each other's questions.
Our job here is doing the operation of an Antarctic station. Everyone here has a key role. Furthermore there is a pretty good understanding of each other's field of competence and requirements. We are a team, nobody owns his exclusive little part of the project. With this in mind, and if you add a good communication between the members of the team, you have all the ingredients of a very successful and attractive research station on this continent.
Q: When it's impossible to simply go to the hardware store for parts - what do you to keep things running? Do you to channel your inner "MacGyver" to get things done?
Yes, this is indeed something we are facing from time to time. But it is not specific to the systems of the station. It is also true for the mechanics (Kristof and Walter), the electrician (Karel), the plumber (Craig) and the entire construction team. And imagine the cook (David)! This is where creativity is essential. I remember having fixed some of our power electronics and science instruments with components soldered out of broken unrelated devices found in the bin.
A good example was just this week. One of our tractors had its hydraulic handbrake stuck because of a problem in the engine electronics. Troubleshooting the problem pointed towards a faulty protection diode. Karel remembered having once thrown away old level sensors that could contain diodes, found them and brought them to the workbench. And indeed, it did the trick, the tractor was repaired in no time and we were able to go to the plateau to bring back in one trip the entire camp we set up there for the SAMBA science project.
When you are at the end of the season, there is no time left to order spare parts and no flight to bring them in anyway. And when something breaks at that very moment, the only option is to find out how it works, what went wrong, what might fix it, if it is available, assess if it is safe and reliable once fixed and then give it a try and test it. The same with last minute needs from the scientists that come here for their research campaign. It is not unusual to repair an ice core drill that broke during the first test run or a seismometer that suffered from the cold of the winter.
Q: What convinced you to go and spend a third of the year in the frozen south of Antarctica?
Several reasons. First, as I said, I like learning new things, discovering new skills and knowledge. I am not sure I would be happy working in a company doing only its own core business.
Then, in addition to learning new professional skills, I also like learning more personal skills, such as creativity, human interaction and understanding (which counts as half of someone's performance in his job here), patience, organization, all these little things that you learn only when you are facing them. This is the right place for taking the time to step back a moment and think of the appropriate behavior.
Last, this place allows us to flee from our busy modern life. Of course we work crazy hours here because four months is the only time we have to finish everything. But life here is easy and peaceful. At the moment you come on site, you forget about your personal material belongings. Little stress, no traffic jams, no crowd around you, only the quiet and peaceful scenery, and a lot of time to let your thoughts wander. We often have very deep debates, nourished by the doctor (Jacques) who is also our station philosopher.
Q: Last season, we wrote: "In addition to field operations, the Princess Elisabeth crew also carried our further development of the Antarctic station's energy efficent zero emission systems, upgrading to higher capacity storage batteries, with an estimated 25% increase in capacity".
Can you tell us what developments have occurred during the off season, and have been implemented by you and the team now?
Let's first remember that as the operator, we are entirely responsible for the site and its developments. So just after the end of the season, we usually sit together and evaluate what is missing, what could be improved and what is doable in the current context. Then we have to make sure we know exactly what we are doing if we decide to add a new power production sources for example, or if we want to modify things in the automation system, etc. So, studying all this already involves quite a bit of work during the off-season. But it is worth it since we never had any incidents, or any instability in the systems so far.
Then we set up a working group, usually led by the Johan, the project manager, and define a schedule and contact the relevant suppliers.
While all this is going on, each of us works on smaller improvements in its field of competence. An example for last year is that no serious short and long-term efficiency and status monitoring system was ever put in place for the power grid. This is, however, essential to assess the real energy performance of the whole project as well as its day-to-day reliability, especially during the unmanned part of the year. So during the off-season I worked on setting up a system to gather info from all the power electronics devices and generate daily monitoring reports as well as instant e-mail alarms if a problem appears. This is essential during the unmanned, remote controlled, time of the year.
Q: How can these developments be applied to 1) other research stations and 2) houses and business back at home?
What one shouldn't forget is that most of the other bases on this continent are much older projects than the Princess Elisabeth station. Most countries having these facilities in Antarctica are there since the sixties. Some even have year-round manned operation since the end of the fifties. It wouldn't be fair to compare the cutting-edge technologies of Princess Elisabeth to the older, run in, logistics-driven way of doing Antarctica of the other bases. But for new bases in the future, we probably set the standard pretty high. The operating costs of Princess Elisabeth are rather low, the ratio of operation staff per scientist is also very low, and most important, our little team is extremely flexible and reactive, so we keep the start-up mindset.
Concerning the technology transfer from this project to houses and businesses, there are of course some ideas that are interesting. Especially on the building automation system where the interactions between each sub-system are considered important, rather than the tuning of each sub-system on its own. For the smart grid on the other hand, I think the first step is not to equip every household with constraining power management systems. There is some education to do first. Like realizing how much a single kiloWatt-hour is, how much of these are unnecessarily burned in each other's home, adapting your needs according to the time of the day and how much you really need it. These concepts are implemented in the power management system here, but what we learned is that forcing people to change their habits is creating more frustration than real energy efficiency. Education is the first answer to the energy problematic, not technology.
Q: What do you miss most about home?
What I miss the most is the autumn. I haven't seen one of those beautiful, coldish but bright and colorful autumn days for years now. Cold wind in the trees, leaves flying everywhere, chestnuts, long clear nights, trying to recognize a known constellation in the stars, these are a few pleasant things of the autumn that I miss.
Q: When you're home, what do you miss about Antarctica? Why do you keep going back?
There are two types of people that come here. First we have the ones that come for the experience or for a shiny line on their curriculum. These are easily recognizable, they keep chatting from here with all their friends to tell their adventure, write blogs, take hundreds of pictures that they distribute as much as they can, etc. Most of the time, these don't come back the next year; they have their story already.
Then you have a small core team that stays and builds up the experience. This little handful of individuals is committed to the project, not to its image or what they can personally get out of it. It is a real pleasure to work with these people. It is this feeling that there isn't a single problem that we can't fix, that there isn't a challenge that we can't take that we all like here and keeps us going back.
Picture: Eric Working in the Great Antarctic Wilderness - © International Polar Foundation