NRL Assists Prince Albert II of Monaco During Arctic Expedition

7/31/2006 - 35-06r
Contact: Public Affairs Office, (202) 767-2541

Last spring, NRL Communication Engineer Mr. Lam Pham, of the Network and Communications Systems Branch, was funded by Intel to participate in a commemorative expedition to the North Pole, providing communication support to His Serene Highness, Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco, and his expedition team. This unusual opportunity to assist in an historic event allowed NRL to gain experience operating commercial Iridium satellite equipment in the hostile Arctic environment for possible future applications by Naval forces.

Background on NRL Involvement

US Navy participation began in the fall of 2005 when RADM Jay Cohen, then Chief of Naval Research, received a request from former Secretary of the Navy and member of the 9/11 Commission, the Honorable John Lehman, to see if the US Navy had communication technology that could be used to support a planned expedition by Prince Albert to the North Pole in April 2006.

ONR then contacted Mr. Ray Cole, head of the Networks and Communication Systems Branch in NRL's Information Technology Division. Cole, working with RADM Cohen, met with Prince Albert and his palace staff in October 2005 at the US Naval Academy.

At that meeting, Prince Albert and Lt Col Bruno Philipponnat, the expedition chief and aide-de-camp to the prince, briefed US Navy representatives on the particulars of the expedition. Prince Albert's objectives included raising public awareness about environmental issues related to the Arctic ecosystem, and commemorating the Arctic expedition of his great-great-grandfather, Prince Albert I, a pioneer in oceanography. One hundred years earlier, Prince Albert I explored the Arctic but never attempted to reach the Pole.

The 2006 expedition would begin at the floating Russian ice station, Camp Barneo, a tent complex set up annually for scientists and researchers in April when the ice is safe. The ice camp is located approximately one degree of latitude, or roughly 75 miles, from the North Pole. Due to the ice drift, the exact distance is unpredictable from day to day.

Cole, working with Pham, proposed using Iridium voice and pagers to provide voice communication to the dog sled team and multiple Iridium data transceivers to upload weather and ice information to the team, and to send still images and video clips to the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. The Iridium constellation, the largest commercial satellite constellation in the world, consists of 66 low-earth orbiting, cross-linked satellites that are arranged in near-polar circular orbits. While the 2.4 kilobit-per-second (Kbps)/channel data rates possible with Iridium would not provide rapid file transfer or live video, it is essentially the only communication solution for the extreme polar regions.

In addition to communication capability, it was also suggested that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be used to scout out the ice conditions and help to select the appropriate route through the pack ice, open water, and long cracks. RADM Cohen described the ONR-developed Silver Fox UAV and discussed how it could be used to support the expedition.

A January meeting and dry run was planned for Northern Sweden. Anyone and anything going to the expedition would be evaluated during that period. In preparation for the dry run, NRL, ONR, and personnel from Advanced Ceramics who make the Silver Fox met to determine the feasibility of including the UAV. In the end it was decided that having a UAV would be a great capability. However, since the expedition would rely on helicopters to provide real-time ice conditions and the Barneo Camp was already at capacity, taking additional personnel was not logistically supportable.

Intel of Sweden had overall technical responsibility for the expedition. NRL teamed with Intel to provide the communication and technical support. The dry run was conducted in January on a frozen lake near Kiruna, Sweden, at the sled dog kennel operated by expedition member, Mr. Kenth Fjellborg. At this dry run, Pham demonstrated how to use the Iridium phones and pagers as well as the capability to send and receive digital images and files via Iridium single channel modem. Pham, who was born in Viet Nam, also had an opportunity to review cold weather survival skills and even learn how to handle a dog sled. (Back home, Pham is a Boy Scout leader and serves as a Scoutmaster.)

Expedition Itineraries

To begin the expedition, the team first gathered at Kiruna, Sweden, on April 10 with all of their equipment. On April 11, the expedition team arrived in Svalbard, Norway. On the same evening, an advance team of five members, which included NRL's Pham, was the first to arrive at the Barneo Ice Camp to set up the communications and computer equipment. Due to harsh temperatures (average of -30° Celsius in April), the ice camp environment is less than ideal for computers and data communication equipment. Still, using four modems simultaneously and special software, the technical team was able to establish a 10-Kbps connection in the North Pole region, high-speed for the environment and sufficient to obtain updated weather and ice information as well as to transmit pictures and video clips along the travel route.

The expedition members departed Barneo for the North Pole on April 13. After four tough days on the ice, they arrived at the North Pole at 17:45 Moscow time. The support team was flown, via an MI-8 Russian helicopter, to the North Pole that evening to set up the communication link for relaying images of the event. Prince Albert used the Iridium SATCOM to talk to several locations including the team back in Svalbard.

Following a short ceremony at the Pole that included Prince Albert's live telephone interviews, a greeting by Russian officials and a parachute jumping show by Russian skydivers, everyone, including the dogs and sled equipment, was flown back to Camp Barneo in three Russian MI-8 helicopters. The expedition team stayed only briefly, flying back to Svalbard on a Russian Antonov-74 plane. The support team spent one more night on the ice, returning the following afternoon.

The expedition team returned to Svalbard at midnight local time on April 16 to the welcome of many of Prince Albert's closest friends and palace staff. He is the first head of state in office to reach the North Pole. When the support staff arrived the following day, they were greeted by Prince Albert and a small celebration was held that evening. Prince Albert highly praised NRL's Lam Pham and his Intel partner Heikki Harkonen for their hard work and great job in support of the expedition.

While Pham was providing communication support at the Barneo Camp, NRL's Cole arrived in Svalbard, where he assisted with the communication on that end and worked with the palace staff to get information from the expedition. Cole had the opportunity to meet some of Prince Albert's closest friends and colleagues and observe, first-hand, their support for his work. Cole noted that it was also interesting to see the degree of Russian support for the expedition and that Prince Albert had high praise for the Russian pilots.

During the expedition, 94 media-quality images and four videos clips were sent from Camp Barneo to the ftp site in Monaco via the Iridium satellite link set up by NRL to distribute images to the media and for public viewing at the Oceanography Museum in Monaco.

In addition, via the Iridium link, the team downloaded weather and ice information sent from Moscow to Monaco twice daily, retrieved Argos tracking data that contained position information of the dog sled team, downloaded route track progress prepared from Monaco, uploaded ice crack conditions that were updated by Barneo pilots to the Monaco ftp site, and retrieved audio files that were recorded at the Monaco Museum for broadcast.

The Iridium handset and pagers were valuable tools for the dog sled team to maintain contact with the rest of the world while en route. On more than one occasion, the Defense Information Systems Agency's Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services web site was used to send paging text messages to the dog sled team when the base-camp urgently needed to contact them.

Expedition Team Members

Prince Albert assembled a world-class team for the expedition. The first guide was Ola Skinnarmo from Sweden. The first person from Sweden to ski to the North Pole, he also holds the world record as the fastest person to ski from Russia to the North Pole. The second guide, Matvey Shparo from Russia, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records with his father as the first people to cross from Siberia to Alaska over the Bering Strait on skis. Both Skinnarmo and Shparo skied to the Pole while the other six members of the expedition traveled on dog sleds. Cole later asked Skinnarmo if they had a problem keeping up with the dog sleds. Skinnarmo replied that they kept busy helping the dog sleds over the rough pack ice. Skinnarmo brought two high power firearms for the team since he has encountered polar bears before, but fortunately the team did not encounter any bears that far north on the ice.

Dr. Michael McNamara was the medical doctor for the team. He grew up and was trained in the United States but now lives in Monaco. One of two people who fell into the Arctic water, McNamara was thrown from his sled when the dogs pulled it into a large ice block while crossing open water. Sometime later, he showed Cole his frostbitten fingers. Cole asked if this was due to his fall in the water, but the answer was "no" he got the frostbite from taking photographs.

The only female member of the team was climber/adventurer Annabelle Bond, a British citizen who lives in Aspen, Colorado. She is widely known as the woman who is the fastest to have climbed the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent, achieving this feat in less than one year.

Other members of the team included dog owners Kenth Fjellborg from Sweden and Tom-Frode Johansen from Norway. The 40 dogs used by the team were Alaskan Huskies, specially bred elite "athletes." Fjellborg lived in Alaska for a while and raced in the famous Iditarod before returning to his home to his native Lapland. Since then, he has been breeding these dogs in Sweden and conducting dog sled excursions for visitors. The dog sleds used by the expedition were specially constructed in Norway. It turns out that having rugged lightweight sleds was important. It was not unusual for the sleds to drop over a meter while navigating the rough Arctic pack ice.

Interesting Facts and Observations

One of the interesting facts about the North Pole is the drifting ice. The Arctic Ocean is a big ocean that is mostly covered by ice two-to-three-meters thick. The ice drifts around the polar basin under the influence of winds and currents. When the ice drifted south, the expedition team actually awakened in the morning to find the distance to the North Pole was longer than it was when they went to sleep. During the first two nights, the team drifted south 5 km each night. Since the team could only move about 17 km on the second day through the pack ice, drifting back 5 km at night was a disappointment for them.

Apart from extreme cold, strong wind, and drifting ice, other obstacles that expeditions face include pack-ice, which is ice that piles up several meters, making it hard to navigate with dogs and heavy sledges; holes in the ice, or ledges, created by strong current that can rip ice apart and force long detours; and polar bears.

Ice-cracks and polar bears were potential risks that the support team could have faced at the Barneo Camp. In March 2004, a sudden uplift of ice demolished most of the ice station, and destroyed 13 of its 16 buildings. Last year, a polar bear was found wandering inside the camp. Fortunately, none of those mishaps occurred while the Monaco expedition team was there this year.

Photos in the Svalbard Archipelago taken by Prince Albert I in 1906 and by Prince Albert II in 2005 showed major changes in the Arctic region of Spitsbergen (Svalbard). The glacier snout has withdrawn about four miles, which means that approximately 40% of its volume melted in the last 100 years, based on the assessment of specialists. Lead Swedish guide, Ola Skinnarmo, also noted that ice conditions have worsened since he first skied to the North Pole in 2000 and because of this, the time record he holds to ski to the North Pole is not likely to be broken.

The expedition was an opportunity for NRL personnel to work with an international team and participate in a unique event. Cole and Pham noted that it was also a pleasure to work with Prince Albert and see how he is using his position as a positive influence in the world. Between his friends, guests, and expedition team members that were assembled in Svalbard, 19 countries were represented.

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