Extreme technology: IT at the ends of the Earth

In space, no one can hear you scream at your PC. And in combat in Iraq or at a research station in the Antarctic, computers face tough conditions. Anna Leach meets the extreme tech experts
Click to follow
The Independent Tech

If you thought that setting up your home PC was tough and that persuading IT support to sort out your desktop almost impossible, spare a thought for the engineers, astronauts and explorers trying to keep their computers working in the most inhospitable places on Earth and beyond.

A blue screen of death is more than just annoying if you are floating somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean or orbiting the earth. Computer advice is a luxury if you're working in extreme conditions like these.

With winter temperatures plummeting to -80 Celsius, Antarctica has some of the harshest conditions on the earth. Desktops kept in the sealed and heated bases work fine, but the extreme cold outside cracks screens, immobilises moving parts and renders batteries almost completely useless.

Brendan Pope ran a computer repair business in the US before moving to Antarctica where he worked in construction at Palmer research station, and blogged about his experiences on Frozennerd.blogspot.com.

"Batteries do not last very long in the cold at all," he says. "We had some Panasonic Toughbooks and while they may last for two or three hours on the battery normally, when you take them outside in those conditions you are lucky to get 20 minutes. At the South Pole, where it gets ridiculously cold, you just can't use anything battery-powered outside. People I knew there would often carry cameras inside their jackets and only whip them out to take a picture and then quickly stuff them back in."

Then there are the moving parts to worry about. Like most consumer goods, laptops are built to work optimally at room temperature. Below freezing, moving parts in the hard drive and motor start to seize up. Screens can be particularly susceptible to the cold too: sharp contractions caused by the cold air make glass crack, with LCD screens on laptops, phones or cameras being particularly vulnerable. Leaving a camera in an unheated area means you'll come back to a gadget with a ruined display. Bringing it inside too quickly can be a problem as well because the sudden change in temperature can cause the screen to shatter too.

It's rapid temperature change that causes another of the biggest problems for computers in the Antarctic – condensation. Coming in from an outside world that could be on average -40 Celsius to a station which would be heated to about 15 to 20 Celsius means a temperature shift of 60 degrees. Warm air hitting a cold laptop can cause condensation to form on its surfaces, a massive problem when the condensation forms on the inside too. The accumulation of water droplets inside will make the computer short circuit.

"Condensation is a big problem," explains Pope. "What you usually have to do is keep laptops in some sort of insulating material – like a styrofoam case which will let it warm up again slowly so it doesn't condense. Otherwise it will eventually short it out. That kills the laptop. It happens with cameras too."

The research base keeps spare parts on hand for laptop first aid, but if your laptop shorts or cracks, the only option is to watch penguins for several weeks because the small station is only supplied by ship once a month.

Even harsher conditions can be found on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. And there a broken computer doesn't just mean a tedious wait; it can cost lives. Fujitsu provides the computers and IT systems to the British Army and the Navy. Add bomb blasts, dust, heat, water and unreliable power supplies, and you get an idea of the challenges facing military computers. The computers used in these conditions have to be "ruggedised" models: that means toughened screens, aluminium or magnesium body casing, shock-protected hard drives and spill-proof keyboards designed to take much more than a spot of cappuccino froth.

On the software side, things have to be adapted for military use too: the user interface has to be simple – a commando in a field doesn't want to be trawling the "help" menu to work out which are the right buttons. Screens need to be readable in bright sunlight, and above all equipment must be reliable – there's no time for unknown errors in combat situations.

The military wants devices that can be easily fixed, explains Neil Ellett, account director of defence and decurity at Fujitsu, so the computers and servers it provides come with Lego-like plug-and-play parts that can be slotted in to replace broken components. These computers and their peripherals are built with self-healing in mind - meaning they can try to fix themselves.

Fujitsu also has hundreds of computer support staff in the field with the Army, many of whom work so closely alongside military personnel that they have been awarded campaign medals. It's safe to say that these are more demanding jobs than the average IT support role in a British office.

When it comes to IT in the face of adversity, there's one place with the harshest conditions of all – space, the final frontier. Having working computers in space is essential for the lives of astronauts, for satellite TV and communication, and for space exploration. You might assume that the computers in space would be the most powerful and hi-tech models available, but surprisingly they're anything but.

"The fundamental thing about the computers used in space is that they are always using computers that are 10 years out of date – because they know they work," says Richard Hollingham, editor of Space:uk, the UK Space Agency's official magazine and BBC science presenter. "The technology has to be tried and tested. You don't send them up there with the latest version of Windows because you don't know what glitches are on it."

Another feature of the hardware used in space is something called redundancy. Essentially that means that three computers are taken into space when only one is needed. So if the primary equipment breaks down, there'll always be a back-up. "There's no computer support when you're up in orbit," Hollingham says grimly.

There is a satellite link to earth for technical help, but sending a technician up to fix a laptop is impossible, so each astronaut on the manned International Space Station will have had training in how the computers on board work, and one will be an IT specialist. On the space stations standard PCs are used, but on the satellites that provide TV, GPS and communication for us back on Earth, computers are built to perform very specific tasks, one to run the ship and one to perform the function it has been put up there to do: broadcast television for example.

Then there are the meteorites. Conditions in space make Afghanistan seem positively welcoming. As Richard Hollingham explains: "The Sun is a big danger for anything sitting just outside the Earth's atmosphere. There is a constant stream of charged particles from the Sun called the solar wind, there's the threat of tiny meteorites – they're minute but they are moving at thousands of miles an hour. The worst thing is space junk, a cloud of space debris that's orbiting the earth. So the satellite has to be able to cope with that and the computer on board has to be able to cope with that."

The shock-proofing a computer on a satellite uses to withstand a meteorite is very similar to the technology used in military computers to withstand bomb blasts. However while most people can hope their office computer will be safe from both meteorites and bombs, all PCs should be built to survive. As Ellett insists, it's not just astronauts and commandos who require reliable computers.

"For us it's very similar, whether we are providing support for a computer system on an oil rig or for an office worker in a city company in London," he says. "A company could lose thousands of pounds for every second the computer system is out of action. No one wants their computers to go down."

Ruggedised laptop lowdown

* These machines – such as the Panasonic Toughbook – are cased in aluminium or magnesium to protect from corrosive chemicals and knocks.

* Screens are bright to be visible against bright sunlight.

* Hard-drives are shock-protected against drops of up to two metres.

* Components are individually secured in their sockets.

* Very low heat central-processing units are used so that the computer's chip can be sealed off, protecting it from water and dust. Both heaters and coolers are built in to compensate for temperature extremes.

* Flash memory is used, not hard-drive memory which requires moving parts.

* Ruggedised models may have lower processing power and cost up to three times more than a standard laptop.