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Antarctic adventures

Updated Wednesday, 9th May 2007

As a software engineer, Miles is designing programs that will guide a robt sub under the Antarctic ice.

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Antarctica is one of the most remote, and unspoilt, regions on the planet; covered in glaciers, surrounded by frozen seas and inhabited by penguins. It's so inhospitable that very little is known about it.

Hungry for information, scientists want to find out what's happening under the ice. They want to know what the seabed and submerged glaciers look like; how fast the ice is melting; if there's any sea life and if so how is it coping? Not only will this tell us about the ecosystems and geology of the Antarctic, but it could give us vital information about global warming.

But there's a major problem; how do you get there? You can't cut through the ice with a ship because that'll damage the environment you want to investigate. You need to send something under the ice, get it to take measurements and make sure it comes back again.

That's the challenge that Miles Peabody and the team at Southampton Oceanography Centre are working on. They've built a seven-metre long, yellow submarine that they hope will reach the Antarctic depths. Dubbed "Autosub", it's being programmed to chart these virgin waters and carry instruments to take water samples and monitor conditions.

This is the cutting edge of robot technology and it's Miles' job to make sure the sub goes out - and returns! As a software engineer he is designing programs that will guide the sub under the ice. Autosub will be able to detect floating ice and the shape of the seabed using on-board sonar. It'll have to navigate itself round any obstacles and that's where the team's programming is of vital importance. This is the first time the sub will be sent on such a long journey - a round trip of 400km, under ice a kilometre thick.

The sub costs hundreds of thousands of pounds and is unique, so losing it and all the information it gathers would be devastating. Yet despite all the team's efforts they estimate that there's 50:50 chance that it might not make it back - so the team has to be prepared for the worst.


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