I have trouble calling Petermann Gletscher, Greenland where I am collecting ocean data that feeds into a remote weather station. This station is run on a pair of car batteries, because the solar panels do not work until the sun rises again in two months and the next electrical outlet is about 300 miles away. A computer controls power to sensors and a satellite phone. All calls from and to the station are routed via a commercial satellite phone system that consists of about 66 satellites orbiting our planet. They often appear as shooting stars in the night sky that are called Iridium flares. As beautiful as these orbiting satellites are, they have driven me mad.
Iridium satellite phones and modems connected to computers are the only way to get data from remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic. Some modems send small text messages called Short-Burst-Data (SBD) while other modems support a true two-way dial-up connection that includes all the hand-shaking of a telephone call. This computer-to-computer calling is more tricky than the person-to-person calls that this system was originally designed for. Working near Petermann Fjord, we had much trouble with even the person-to-person calls. Senator John McCain’s of the U.S. Congress was rudely disconnected, when he called us on the ship while in Sweden working with Government officials. And the Iridium phones on our Swedish icebreaker I/B Oden were thoroughly checked by field technician Robert Holden:
The building and coding of this ocean weather station is cool stuff for someone like me who likes Legos, computer games, and hacking electronics. Our Greenland ocean observing system uses both the text message SBD system at two smaller stations and the dial-up system at the larger weather station. The SBD system is great for small burst of data smaller than 1960 bytes per message. The Greenland station makes the call to a ground station that then e-mails the message forward to us. The method is very reliable, but there are small connection gaps that become data gaps.
In contrast, the dial-up method delivers a gap-free data set, but its bi-polar behavior drives me nuts. There are periods when each scheduled call results in a connection and new data, but there are also periods when each scheduled call fails to connect. Over the last 4 months I made 1450 calls to Greenland. Only 189 of these 1450 calls resulted in a connection. That is a failure rate of 87%. It admittedly includes one desperate day (Sept.-18) when I made a call every 3 minutes and each call failed. This desperation was after a 10-day sequence of failed calls when I lost my cool. There were 86 out of 130 days when a successful connection was made, that’s still a large failure rate of 34%, but there are zero missing data so far. [The station was set up Aug.-20.]
The advantage of the fickle dial-up connection is that I only need one connection to recover all data that has been collected since the last successful call. This differs from the SBD text message, where a lost connection means lost data. Furthermore, the connection to the Greenland station is a regular RS-232 connection which acts the same as the iPhone connected to the computer from which I type these lines. Hence software changes are possible, too, as scary as they may be.
Now why is the Iridium connection acting in a such a bi-polar fashion, that is, working like a charm for weeks and months to suddenly shut down completely for days to weeks just as suddenly? My honest answer is that I do not know. Furthermore, nobody really knows for sure. There is some talk in hidden places that Iridium modems or phones “de-register” themselves from the Iridium network, if they do not start a phone call. This is no problem for the SBD message as the Greenland modem always does the calling. It does matter for my dial-up, because the Greenland modem never initiates a call, it only responds when called after the Greenland computer gives it the power to do so. Which brings me to
Register_Modem = “ATDT 1234” & CHR(13) & CHR(10)
The “fake call” is a software update that tells the Greenland modem to, well, make a fake call. The text string Register_Modem contains a non-existing phone number (I hope) 1234 as well as a carriage return CHR(13) and a line feed CHR(10) and the string is send via SerialOut to the modem that is addressed here as ComRS232 after the serial port between Greenland computer and modem is opened via SerialOpen. Lets see how this works over the next days, weeks, and months. For the first time, I received this morning a response from Greenland that it was “BUSY.” I took this as a good sign …
PostScript: Data look awesome with new, large, and unexpected diurnal variations that started Dec.-8.