Thursday, 12 June 2014

Guest post from Pete our friendly IT guy!

My name is Pete Lens and I am computing support for this science cruise. I’ve been working for BAS for 17 years having wintered at Halley and Signy bases and enjoyed many science cruises to the Antarctic and Arctic. My main work is in Cambridge as Head of Windows Systems, but for 2 months of the year I could be on a ship or research base enjoying the wildlife and icebergs, but also making sure the scientists and other support staff have the computing resources they need for their work.

Pete at Gull Lake on South Georgia

So what does that entail? For the scientists it’s all about the data. The ship is flooded with cabling and instruments carrying sensors and most of them terminate at a central computer which handles data acquisition. Each piece of data is logged and given a timestamp and can then be retransmitted to other instruments as an input.

Some instruments can produce data at very high speeds but the central logging system has a resolution of 1 second. Even at that slow rate, large files will be produced by the end of a 2 month cruise. There are many monitoring tools checking the quality and existence of the data and if it stops flowing then I am called, night or day. I am also involved with the processing and presentation, on hand to demonstrate how to use scripts or write new ones if required. Thankfully, most students will come armed with knowledge of tools such as ArcGIS, matlab, R and Python.

One of my favourite systems on board is the multibeam echo sounder which can produce a 3D map of the seabed. Instead of a single ping like a submarine, it produces a phased burst of energy into the water every few seconds, depending on depth. It then listens to the returned sound and does some serious maths to produce a rolling picture of the sea floor. It’s incredible to see mountain ranges or deep ocean snaking riverbeds which are thousands of metres below us.

Example echo sounder image

Of course, it’s not entirely about the science as there are plenty of administration systems as well. Everyone needs an account and personal space for storing data, access to printers, scanners, wifi, web, wiki, applications, anti-virus, security patches. The same stuff required if you’re running a network of 10 people or 10,000.

The IT staff on the James Clark Ross have to be innovative and flexible. Every day there is something new to learn and everyday there’s the chance of looking out of the window at a pod of whales or something equally amazing. As a job, this is just about as good as it gets…

This is my first trip away since becoming a Dad and Hal has just learnt his first few words, one of them being “no” so I think Suzy has some explaining to do. Please get in touch if you would like more information on the ships systems or base/ship life. I’m always happy to help.

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