How do you supply reliable electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at an unmanned research site in one of the most remote locations on the planet? How do you transfer the scientific data to the researcher’s home institution in near real-time? How do you monitor the status of the system so you know when there is a problem? How do you diagnose problems remotely, so you know what to bring with you to the site when weather conditions allow you to travel there?
I work for VECO Polar Resources, the civilian contractor to the National Science Foundation’s Arctic program. The NSF Office of Polar Programs sponsors research in Antarctica and throughout the Arctic. I have had the privilege to work in both areas, and have faced the questions posed above many times. The answers are rarely the same, and are usually dependent on the environmental conditions and the type of research being supported.
My colleague Roy Stehle of SRI International and I are partners on the Ivotuk project, which is described in this article. Roy is an electrical engineer and communications expert with many years of experience. He is also extremely attentive to detail, and notices when anything is amiss. It is Roy who is responsible for most of the real brain work in this project. I’m more of the shovel and hammer man.
Ivotuk, Alaska, is a tiny unmanned research site that lies at the southeastern edge of the National Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope. This is a classic Alaskan tundra environment. There are no trees, and few spots high enough to get out of the water table. The 5,500-foot (1,676 m) runway and a raised gravel pad remain from oil exploration days in the early 1970s, and have a lot to do with making this a great place to conduct research. During the summer, skies are frequently overcast. In the winter, solar energy is available for a few hours a day at best.
It was for this reason that a redundant diesel generator system was initially selected for the site. Northern Power Systems (NPS) of Vermont was chosen to provide the autonomous power supply. A photovoltaic (PV) option was a possibility to include with the system, but due to the environmental conditions, it was originally determined that it would not be a cost-effective augmentation to the central power supply.
The original system was built by NPS, and was intended to provide electricity for the operation of meteorological experiments and data acquisition instrumentation. It also powered the satellite communications system to transfer the data to the researcher’s home institution in San Diego. Two Lister Petter 6.5 KW diesel generators are housed in a modular refrigeration-type enclosure, set on a rugged aluminum I-beam frame.
Roy Stehle and Todd Valentic, also of SRI International, worked together to create the electronics package and programming that allows us to see very detailed information on how the system is performing. Data is sent out via a StarBand satellite link to the server based in