Tractor caravan supplies South Pole scientists; robotic replacements considered

By Eric Niiler
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 2:03 AM

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA - To maintain U.S. facilities in this frigid, remote region, the South Pole Traverse hauls fuel and supplies in a caravan of giant tractors that crawl across the continent at 5 mph.

One of them is driven by Denver native Kristy Carney, 39, who came to Antarctica 13 years ago. Her fist job was making sandwiches in a deli on the U.S. base.

She's worked her way up to a prime job as a heavy equipment operator, tackling one of the most difficult and dangerous missions - which she calls "the chance of a lifetime."

Problems can include blinding snowstorms, hidden crevasses, mechanical breakdowns - and personality differences, Carney said.

"Definitely the social interactions of the people can be a big challenge," Carney said. "We had to fire someone after the first traverse. You definitely want to have personalities that get along. It's very isolated, and there's nowhere to go."

Support for human habitation of Antarctica has always been a logistical problem. To supply the 600 or so scientists working on the continent, tons of material have to be flown in every day from an air base in New Zealand. Huge C-17 cargo jets make the 51/2-hour trip to a U.S.-built ice runway at McMurdo Station on the Ross Sea. From there, special ski-equipped LC-130 propeller aircraft haul supplies an additional three hours to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station and a dozen or so remote field camps spread across West Antarctica.

But aircraft are limited in the amount of supplies they can deliver, and flights are often delayed by whiteout conditions that can make flying impossible. Meanwhile, the number and size of scientific research projects has boomed in recent years, fueled by concerns about Antarctica's response to global climate change as well as a boost in federal stimulus funding.

So the National Science Foundation and its contractor, Raytheon Polar Services, began hauling material by ground from McMurdo to the South Pole two years ago. The overland traverse currently uses a crew of 10 people driving five specially designed tractors with huge snow blades. They haul giant rubber bladders filled with fuel that runs the generators at the South Pole station, as well as a small crew quarters about the size of a recreational vehicle.

The five vehicles creep forward at 5 mph, taking more than a month to reach the Pole. "You get stuck all the time; it's a daily routine sometimes," Carney said.

The most dangerous section for drivers is the Antarctic shear zone located a few hours south of McMurdo Station. Thick ridges of ice are squeezed together, erupting on the surface to form often-impenetrable "pressure ridges."

Drivers also have to watch out for hidden crevasses that can be several hundred to several thousand feet deep, and the lead vehicle (known as a "piston bully") carries special ground-penetrating radar to avoid the hazards.

Officials from the NSF and Raytheon are considering a proposal to automate the traverse - in essence, letting robots take over most of the work from human drivers.

"This is a transportation situation where a robotic solution couldn't be better," said George Blaisdell, operations manager for the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is part of the National Science Foundation. "There are no pedestrians to get in the way, no curbs to run over."

Blaisdell says the NSF is working with robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon University to develop a prototype vehicle that they expect to test later this year.

Blaisdell says the idea is to replace the current configuration of 10 people with only two, who would rotate shifts and keep the train moving forward 24 hours per day. Currently, the caravan works 12-hour shifts before making camp for the night.

But human beings will still have their uses.

"If something breaks down it's still going to need a human to fix it," Blaisdell said.

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