Soldering ‘Round the World: Engineering and Virtual Reality in the Arctic

Bow of the Ocean Endeavour in Kangerlussuaq Fjord, Greenland

By Antonella Wilby

It’s 30° Fahrenheit outside, the wind blasting icy spray on deck off the water ahead, and my flip flop-clad feet are quickly going numb. I stand at the bow of a ship sailing through the Kangerlussuaq Fjord in Greenland. Always a Californian, I am too captivated by the scenery passing in front of me to go inside and find some sensible Arctic footwear. Although it’s midnight, the sun is still well above the horizon, casting golden rays of light at the mountains ahead.

The ship is the Ocean Endeavour, and the expedition is a partnership between The Explorers Club and Adventure Canada. I am on the ship with one thought in mind: what creatures lurk below the turbulent green surface ahead? I had developed a 360° camera, dubbed the “SphereCam” to take underwater 360° video of marine mammals, triggering off their echolocation clicks. My goal was to use spherical imaging to create immersive visualizations of ocean environments, which can be visualized using virtual reality (VR) technology to communicate and educate about the importance of ocean conservation. The system had originally been designed to study the rare and endangered vaquita porpoise, but on this expedition I was hoping to expand its applications to create VR for education and outreach.

I had boarded the Ocean Endeavour with lofty aspirations of capturing in VR pods of narwhals and belugas, humpbacks and walruses, and the massive bummocks of icebergs plunging deep into the water until they disappear from view. Unfortunately, to both my relief and utter dismay, I quickly learned that even in international waters the laws of physics and the universe were still functioning as usual, chief among them Murphy’s law: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

“SphereCam” 360° camera, torn apart in my ship’s cabin

On day one of the twelve-day expedition, the trouble started with a small broken solder joint on one of the cables which trigger the camera. An easy fix, or so I thought. I promptly plugged my power strip into the wall outlet of my cabin, ready to heat up my soldering iron and fix the problem. When I flipped the switch on the power strip, I heard a loud pop and saw a small puff of blue smoke, and the power in my cabin immediately went off. The ship was on 220 volt power, and of the 100 pounds of equipment I brought with me, I had verified that everything could take 220 volt power except for two things: the first was the power strip, the second turned out to be the soldering iron.

On day two, the ship reached the Greenlandic settlement of Kangaamiut, located just below the Arctic Circle in the southern part of Greenland. While I waited for power to be restored to my cabin, I boarded a zodiac to shore. Ree, one of the ship’s marine biologists and zodiac drivers, was kind enough to drive me around Kangaamiut’s small harbor so I could investigate some of the marine life. Underneath the water line, the rocky coastline was flourishing with a vast array of arctic seaweeds and algae, and I even briefly spotted a jellyfish swimming by near the surface! I had always imagined the coastline of a place as harsh as Greenland to be barren and scraped clean by fast-moving sea ice. While I can’t speak for the rest of the coastline, in Kangaamiut at least it seemed that Greenland could have been named more for its underwater flora than its snow-covered terrain.

Underwater plants on the shores of Kangaamiut, Greenland

After two days spent transiting Davis Strait the ship arrived on Baffin Island. Since we were now in Canada, the on-shore facilities again used 110 V power, so I brought my soldering iron to shore with the goal of finding an outlet some kind soul would let me use. Eventually, I found an outlet on the porch of the visitor’s center and got to work. The solder was fixed in fairly short order, but as I was finishing up the final touches, it started to rain. I hurriedly packed the equipment, shielding the sensitive electronics from the drops with my body, hugging the computer inside my rain jacket. It wasn’t raining that hard. It was probably okay. When I got back to the ship, the computer wasn’t signaling the cameras to turn on. Perhaps a rogue raindrop had reached the control board, or some other undiagnosed problem cropped up. Regardless, I didn’t have the tools in my small kit to analyze the root cause of the problem, and it appeared that the entire expedition would be for nothing. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

Iceberg in Davis Strait

Fortunately, luck was on my side. A documentary filmmaker, Trevor Wallace, was also aboard the ship, and had brought a small 360° camera along. Together we embarked on a risky experiment to use parts from my camera system to hack together a waterproof enclosure for his camera. We spent an evening building a rudimentary housing just barely large enough to fit the camera, a single o-ring, a hacksaw, and a handful of screws scavenged (with permission!) from the ship’s engine room.

The next morning, we carefully tested our contraption in the small pool at the back of the ship. To my utter amazement, it worked! The camera remained dry despite the only seal being an O-ring tenuously sandwiched between two plates.

That afternoon the ship reached Akpatok Island, an island north of Quebec with towering limestone cliffs on which thousands of thick-billed Arctic murres nest. The water was glassy as the ship dropped anchor and lowered the zodiacs.

Thick-billed murres off Akpatok Island, Canada

Trevor and I were in a mad frenzy, making sure the camera battery was charged, trying to fashion an attachment to Trevor’s monopod with zip-ties (and prayers), and making sure the camera stayed connected to Trevor’s smartphone since it would turn off if it disconnected and we hadn’t had enough resources inside my suitcase to build a waterproof button for our makeshift enclosure. I spent the last 20 minutes before zodiac launch crouched next to the power outlet closest to the gangway, trying to pump enough electrons into my dying phone to make it through the zodiac deployment. Then we were rushing onto a zodiac, speeding out into the sea ice, and everything became calm.

The water was a perfect mirror as far as the eye could see. The hubbub of the ship faded into the distance and the only sound was the zodiac motor speeding us over the water’s surface. The driver cut the motor, and we just drifted over beds of submerged ice, glowing green underneath the crystalline water like abstract sculptures.

Trevor hangs our camera and makeshift enclosure off the zodiac

As we drifted slowly amongst the murres diving into the water near the zodiac we stuck the camera into the intricate underwater ice sculptures. The video below shows some of the processed 360 videos from our day on the ice. The makeshift housing made it a little difficult to stitch videos  together, but all things considered it was a remarkably successful end to our expedition!

I enjoy all the problems and hacks, mad scrambles to find a solution with only the parts on hand, and eventual successes that come along with fieldwork. Despite the frequent setbacks, which can often be frustrating and demoralizing, the process is always worth it in the end. The challenges keep things interesting, and every expedition is a learning experience. You learn resourcefulness, resilience, calm under pressure, optimism, and most importantly, you learn to always bring a battery-powered soldering iron.

Antonella Wilby is a PhD student in the Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego. Her research focuses on underwater robotics, specifically 3D mapping and localization with multi-robot systems, and she is broadly interested in engineering technologies to support field science and exploration. You can read more about her technology development and field expeditions here.

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