Tuesday, 11 June 2013

9 - IT at Sea

Mark Maltby
Mark Maltby, what is your background and what is your job on-board the RRS James Cook?

I have a degree in astro-physics and have worked as a commercial pilot in the past. Before working at NOC, I was employed by the British Antarctic Survey where I was stationed at the British Antarctic Station HALLEY for over two years, working as a Electronics Engineer. Now I am what is called a Sea Systems Technician, taking care of all the scientific equipment that is permanently fitted to the ship itself. This includes mainly the acoustic gear, GPS's and the IT.

Could you specify that a bit?

IT setup in the main lab monitoring scientific ship data
For the acoustics its mainly collecting and processing of all the data from the different equipment like ADCP and SWATH (bathymetric profiling equipment), as well as handling the meteorological data. The IT part concerns mostly everything related to computers on the ship, system administration and programing as well as hardware issues. Though, it not only concerns the computers on-board, but also the telephone setup.

On day-to-day basis, what do you spend most of your time on?

We are at sea for 90 to 120 days per year, were we have 12 hours working days. During this time the management of the system takes up a lot of the time, as well as making sure that the specific demands for a particular cruise are met. Every cruise is different from the next not only with regard to the scientists on-board, but also the scientific focus of each expedition. Therefore the requirements change and specific settings have to be adapted. This is one of the more demanding tasks, but it is also what keeps this job so interesting.

Concerning your work, what is the main difference between on land and on sea?

A lot of the purely computational matters are quite similar to the ones on land. The most striking difference is probably the internet connection. Since there is no mobile phone net out here (and obviously no wire connection), we rely on satellite connections which are very costly. Therefore we only have a 256 kb/sec. bandwidth, which is shared by all users on-board. To give you an idea, your common 3G mobile phone is four times as fast. Considering that we are around fifty people on-board the RRS James Cook the experienced connection speed is roughly one two-hundredths of what your modern smart phone can do. This restriction sometimes leads to situations were diplomatic skills are required, since not all people respond equally well to the restrictions it imposes.

What do you do when you have equipment failure ?

Obviously we can't go to the nearest computer store! We carry duplicates of most of our hardware, so that we are able to replace for example computers. But with some of the larger equipment, like the ADCP transponder we are sometimes not able to do anything and have to wait until we reach the next port.

Are you interested in some of the science conducted here on-board? What science do you find most interesting?

Coming from a physical background, I am most interested in the research related to physical oceanography or meteorological, especially the more technical aspects.

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