North Pole Expedition Puts Rugged Mobility to the Test

— December 10, 2012

Most humans, and most computers, aren't equipped to thrive in Arctic climates — but it turns out there are some notable exceptions. When renowned researchers Alan Le Tressoler and Julien Cabon planned the French scientific North Pole 2012 Expedition, they rigorously prepared themselves to withstand the Arctic's harsh climate and rough landscape.

These scientists are affiliated with various institutions including University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and the University of Tromso, both in Norway and considered the northernmost places for higher learning and research located on the edge of the Arctic; Ampere in Lyon, France — affiliated to the French National Center for Scientific Research; LOS/CERSAT in Brest, France — affiliated to the French Research Institute for the Exploration of the Sea; and Océanopolis. The expedition was integrated on projects they were working on for many years so there was much to be considered when choosing the right technology.

In this kind of expedition, working with reliable technology is critical to success. Using Handheld's Algiz XRW ultra-rugged notebook, these researchers successfully gathered new information crucial to scientists' understanding of the Arctic Ocean and planet Earth.

Land of Ice and Snow
The scientific community knows relatively little about the geographic North Pole, Earth's true northern axis of rotation. It's set in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, on sea ice that constantly drifts with wind and currents. This ice is a common subject of scientific inquiry related to its decreasing mass, its movement and the life and ecosystem it supports. But studying it is a major undertaking.

"Satellites can't get to exactly above the geographic North Pole," Le Tressoler says. "There is a 'black spot' of missing data around it, so human presence is the only way to take those data and to get samples."

The North Pole 2012 Association calls the Arctic Ocean "an essential element in the balance of the planet." It believes a stronger base of knowledge about the Arctic, including data related to sea ice, marine biology and polar atmosphere, can help scientists form a more complete and accurate picture of the world we live in.

"Even though this is a French scientific expedition, its interest goes beyond borders. The data collected will contribute to a better understanding of the ocean and major challenges ahead," the association says.

The Mission
Two main goals preoccupied Le Tressoler and Cabon as they embarked on their mission: gathering scientific data at the geographic North Pole and educating others about the journey. The scientists planned to reset camp at the Pole each day using GPS, take measurements and collect samples at that site, and share their adventure online.

This would be the first mission of its type, and it wouldn't be easy. Depending on the severity of ice drifts, repositioning camp could mean up to 15 or more miles of daily travel on foot, over constantly evolving ice — all while pulling 331 pounds of sleds full of equipment.

"It is a very difficult spot to go to and survive. The sea ice is not flat, and it's full of open water that you have to cross, either with pulks [sleds pulled by dogs] or by swimming. You can also find compression ridges, which are composed of blocks of sea ice that press against each other, more than 33 feet high," Le Tressoler said.

In addition to meeting their own physical challenges, the scientists needed their technology to meet very stringent guidelines to ensure the mission's success. "We needed a strong mobile computer that can handle falls, very cold weather and snow, that you can read even in the sun, that's not too heavy, that has nice connections for the scientific instruments, and that has powerful batteries, as we could not recharge them," Le Tressoler explained.

The Right Technology
With these specifications in mind, North Pole 2012 selected the Handheld Algiz XRW as the best tool for the job. The Algiz XRW is an ultra-rugged notebook computer that can handle temperatures as low as -40F. It meets military standards for ruggedness, which means it's dustproof, highly water resistant and can withstand several drops.

Its batteries run for eight hours on a single charge, and the 10.1-inch touchscreen display provides excellent clarity and brightness indoors and out — perfect for the Arctic's permanent daylight. The device also features a host of mobile capabilities and connectivity options, and it weighs only 3.3 pounds.

For three weeks, the scientists lived unsupported and unassisted at the North Pole. They measured ice drift, thickness and density, assessed the Arctic atmosphere, and collected plankton and seawater samples. "Every day we had many hours of data collection," Le Tressoler said. "Weather data were collected by a handy weather station. Samples of snow and sea ice for microbiology, mercury and radioactivity studies were sometimes difficult to do, depending on the weather. We had to take off our head protection and our warm gloves to put on special masks and plastic gloves, in order to not contaminate the samples."

To collect plankton samples, Le Tressoler and Cabon had to drill and saw large holes through the ice by hand. "In some areas, the sea ice thickness is 5 feet. You have to cut it in many pieces, as big ones are far too heavy to take out. That job can sometimes take almost a day. If you want to use the same hole afterward, you have to reopen it with the ice saw every 12 hours," Le Tressoler said.

They used this window to measure water properties such as temperatures, salinity and density, and to drop nets and sample bottles down at three different depths — the deepest of which was 427 feet. "Each time the equipment was brought back by hand, and made our trousers and gloves wet and frozen," Le Tressoler said.

Although environmental factors challenged the team throughout the expedition, the Algiz XRW did not. "I would never have thought that a computer could work so well in these harsh conditions," Le Tressoler said. "The screen on the Algiz XRW is perfect, even in direct sunlight. The touchscreen did its job perfectly — very important and appreciable when you have three layers of gloves. Nothing broke or malfunctioned."

The Arctic's extreme cold is the most significant challenge to technology, because it impacts battery life as well. Le Tressoler and Cabon kept various batteries in their sleeping bags at night to keep them warm, but still most of the devices failed after just a few minutes of use — except for the Algiz XRW. "I could hardly believe my eyes; these batteries last forever. It was incredible," Le Tressoler said.

The two-man team used the Algiz XRW running on Windows 7 to fulfill all computing and computer-based data storage requirements for the expedition's duration. The electronic scientific equipment (sea-water probe, weather station, etc) were also connected to the computer to download the data.

Using all this in conjunction with a satellite phone, they were able to download scientific data and photos to the computer and send them to laboratory scientists for quick feedback and direction. They also carried out a successful educational program for schools and kept up social media correspondence, complete with pictures and videos.

In hostile, unpredictable environments, it's especially important to be able to rely on your technology for both successful research and safety. "The computer did all what we needed, in all conditions, and was an important key to the success of the expedition," Le Tressoler said.

This ruggedized computer was able to withstand every challenge of one of the most extreme environments on Earth, making groundbreaking scientific exploration possible. Mobile technology continues to change the planet and helps us learn more about its more challenging locations.

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