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Extreme Communications

Facilitating use of communications tools can be a real challenge at times, what with network quirks, technology glitches, and user fickleness. And that's on a good day, in a "normal" business environment -- most can only imagine what it would be like supporting users who need to communicate from extreme places... the Arctic or in deep space, say.

Two news items recently caught my eye for the uniqueness of the environments and the challenges those present for communications.

To Infinity & Beyond
The latest comes from NASA, which today is sending a crew to the Atlantic Ocean seabed in an exercise aimed at helping prepare for future deep space missions. During the 14-day mission, called NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 20, the crew will evaluate tools and techniques for use on future spacewalks, possibly even on the Martian surface, NASA said in a press release.

"Living and working in the highly operational, isolated and extreme environment of the aquatic realm has provided significant science and engineering for the benefit of human spaceflight. It has also clearly proven to be as close to spaceflight as is possible here on Earth," said NEEMO Project Lead Bill Todd, describing the mission in a prepared statement.

As you might expect, communicating to Mars or elsewhere in orbit comes with some challenges -- delay being one of them. As part of NEEMO 20, the crew will test time delays as would be expected of exchanges taking place between earth and space during potential voyages. While the NASA aquatic test is a complicated affair, participants will be using very down-to-earth communications technology -- the Voxer messaging and walkie-talkie app available to any smartphone user. With Voxer, users can talk and text in real time, or recipients can listen to audio messages later, just as they'd read a text message at their convenience.

Unlike during ordinary use, in the case of NEEMO 20, Voxer will deliberately introduce delay in the communications between those at NEEMO 20 mission control and the crew living in NASA's Aquarius habitat 62 feet below the ocean's surface off the Florida coast. I spoke about the logistics with Jim Panttaja, who as head of corporate development at Voxer is the project lead for this and previous NEEMO endeavors.

Initially, the Aquarius crew and mission control will be able to communicate using Voxer with no delay. As the training progresses, delays will kick in roughly as follows:

To introduce the delay, Voxer will suspend messages going to or from the habitat.

"We'll check the timestamp and decide on an individual message basis on who it's from and who it's to," Panttaja said. The goal is to teach the crew to adapt their processes to the communications delays, he added.

"When there's a delay, you can't just say, 'Try this and tell me if you see smoke arise.' You have to give a whole sequence of instructions in one go," he explained. "That may seem obvious, but you really have to be able to experience it to appreciate it and learn from it."

Across the Frozen Tundra
The second news item comes from the Canadian Arctic Circle, where British Army Captain Jon Armstrong and Corporal Arjun Limbu of The Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR) are circumnavigating Ellesmere Island -- a 1,500-mile journey.

As explained on the Arctic Gurkha Expedition website, the mission is twofold: "to raise the profile of the Gurkhas in the 200th anniversary year of Gurkha service to the Crown while raising money to support Gurkha communities in Nepal." By way of background, all Gurkha soldiers are recruited in Nepal with officers recruited from across the U.K. and the Commonwealth.

Captain Jon Armstrong and Corporal Arjun Limbu (source: Facebook)

I got in touch with the duo in coordination with SaaS conferencing provider LoopUp, which is sponsoring the expedition. Via email, Steve Favell, LoopUp co-CEO, explained the company's rationale in sponsoring the expedition. Referencing the earthquake that devastated Nepal this spring, he wrote, "The money raised for the Gurkha Welfare Trust has never been more important and we jumped at the chance to support this expedition. We greatly admire Jon and Arjun for their ambition and leadership in taking on such a challenge."

The expedition launched at the beginning of May with the goal of finishing the island's circumnavigation within 100 days, to break the world record that currently stands at 104 days. "Communications have been critical throughout the expedition. We rely on communications for getting our weather reports, sending our daily updates and, if the worst came to the worst, to call for emergency help," the expedition team wrote in response to my email questions. The expedition team reached the Canadian Forces Station Alert, which is the most northerly point on the island, on July 2. At that point, Armstrong and Limbu were able to use the LoopUp service to talk to groups of family and friends, as well as media and schools across the U.K.

As I know from a July 13 Expedition Arctic Gurkha Facebook post, as of last week "the boys are facing incredible challenges in the Nares Strait: ...Day 3 of not moving. Nothing to be done but to sit and wait for the ice to clear ...."

That makes the email communiqué I received from Armstrong and Limbu earlier this month all the more compelling reading. "... both voice and data communications with the outside world have been the bedrock of morale. It has enabled us to maintain some element of normality whilst in the extreme wilderness."

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