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Preston Wilson and Chad Greene in Barrow, Alaska.

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Shilpa Gulati, an ME Ph.D. student, supervised by Mechanical Engineering Professor Ray Longoria and (now) University of Michigan Computer Science Professor Ben Kuipers, left in mid-October for Antarctica to complete the underwater characterization of the chemical properties of the water in a perennially ice-covered lake, West Lake Bonney, with a team of researchers, a cook and a diver. The team is measuring temperature, electrical conductivity, ambient light, chlorophyll-a, Dissolved Organic Matter, pH and redox of the water column in the entire lake using an underwater robot named ENDURANCE (Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtarctic Explorer), named after Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's famous ship. The robot also performs visible imaging of the benthic microbial mats, other lake bottom materials, lake ice bottom and the glacier contact. This year they plan to explore the east part of West lobe of Lake Bonney to obtain the first complete biogeochemical profile of the west lobe. Further, they will perform visual imagery of the part of Taylor Glacier that is submerged under the lake.

The robot ENDURANCE has been developed by an Austin-based company Stone Aerospace, owned by Dr. William Stone. Gulati learned about this project through her advisor Dr. Ben Kuipers, and has been involved in software development and field testing of the robot for more than a year. The software for ENDURANCE builds upon earlier code written by Carnegie Mellon University for DepthX, a predecessor to ENDURANCE.

Since their arrival in October, the team and carpenters from McMurdo Station have built a bot-house to enclose melt hole in the ice where they deploy the robot daily. They are living about 15 minutes away by ATV in a camp on the shore of East Lake Bonney in tents as well as a large makeshift structure they’ve named “the Jamesway” where they work, eat, socialize and stay out of the elements. Even in the summer, it can still be miserably cold and windy, with low temperatures averaging -20C (-4F), wind chills of -30C(-22F). The average summer temperature is -7C(20F), but this year is colder than average.

Living and working in such adverse climate conditions even with today's technology poses great challenges, as every student of polar exploration knows. They’ve had problems with their health, a heat-producing generator used for melting the hole, running low on fuel, getting supplies to their camp — and that’s just the logistics.

At this writing, the team is now beginning to deploy the robot through the large melt hole in the ice. They have encountered some problems get the hole prepared, due to ice ice shelves in the water and issues with equipment. They've had to don diving attire twice to discern what was impeding the robot, and clear the unwanted ice formations. They are using a fiber-optic cable to connect the robot’s onboard computer to the mission control computers in the bot house. At first, the cable wasn’t transmitting but after diagnostic testing was done, it was determined to be a problem with a connector, which has now been replaced.

Shilpa and the team will be in Antarctica for two months and hope to complete the mapping portion of their work on this trip. Please see her blog to read updates and see photos of their research as it progresses.

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