Videoconferences give NSF worker link to doctors

Videoconferences give NSF worker link to doctors

Communications technician Lisa Beal

Air Force air-drops systems so ailing Antarctica team member can get medical consultations

By Frank Tiboni

GCN Staff

Videoconferencing equipment dropped at the South Pole this month has boosted the morale of the 41 National Science Foundation workers there who are helping an ill colleague keep in touch with doctors from her frozen workplace.

NSF learned last month that a team member at the Antarctica station had discovered a lump in her breast. The Office of Polar Programs configured a system so she could hold videoconferences with her physicians in the United States. The wintry conditions at the pole make it impossible for the worker to return home until the fall.

An Air Force C-141 cargo plane flying out of Christchurch, New Zealand, dropped six bundles of equipment on July 11 that included Pentium III PCs from Hewlett-Packard Co. and videoconferencing cameras from Sony Corp. of America of Park Ridge, N.J., said Pat Smith, manager of technology development in the Office of Polar Programs.

Two days later, the station started videoconferencing. The link provided a seamless doctor-patient discussion with physical and psychological benefits, Smith said.

'The station has used the equipment every night since it was set up,' Smith said.

From February to November, the South Pole station experiences temperatures averaging 80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Almost absolute darkness made this a challenging flight for both the crew and the aircraft, said Dr. Karl A. Erb, director of the Office of Polar Programs.

Air mailed

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, one of three stations NSF operates on Antarctica, did not have the equipment it needed for high-quality videoconferencing. So the Office of Polar Programs, working with Antarctic Support Associates Inc. of Englewood, Colo., and Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., configured a system capable of state-of-the art videoconferencing, Smith said.

The team decided on a 550-MHz HP Pavilion 8495 running Microsoft Windows 98. The system has a 19G hard drive and 256M of synchronous dynamic RAM. A Sony EVID30 camera connects to the Pentium III PC, which came loaded with videoconferencing software, Smith said.

The system also uses four voice-over-IP modules from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and two Iridium handheld satellite phones from Motorola Inc., he said.

The Office of Polar Programs sent two of everything in cardboard boxes packed with Styrofoam and air bubble plastic casings to prevent breakage during the 700-foot drop. All the computer hardware arrived intact, Smith said.

The system uses monitors that were at the South Pole station because NSF believed new computer monitors would not survive the drop, he said.

For its communications link, Amundsen-Scott relies on three satellites: the Air Force's Lincoln Experimental Satellite-9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geostationary Environmental Observational Satellite-3 and NASA's Tracking Data Relay Satellite-F1. The teleconferencing capability primarily runs on the NASA satellite'a Ku-band, one-way data communications service, Smith said.

Prior to the videoconferencing capability, the South Pole station used a satellite communications link so medical experts and the woman could assess the threat to her health. After a thorough review of the information, the patient and her physicians decided on a drug treatment course, Erb said.

Besides the computer hardware, the drop also included medical supplies for the woman. Personnel at the station, braving the intense cold, used everything from muscle power to front-end loaders to recover the equipment, Erb said.

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