Joe Kinrade in training

Epic Antarctica adventure leaves PhD student chilled out

Joe Kinrade’s PhD research saw him spend six weeks camping in the wilds of Antarctica last winter, gathering data from isolated GPS receiver arrays. He spent Christmas at the South Pole, explored alien landscapes and even got friendly with the local elephant seals. 

IET member Joe Kinrade was guaranteed a white Christmas last December, as he spent the festive season on an epic research trip to the South Pole with the British Antarctic Survey.

A postgraduate student at the University of Bath, his research aims to improve the way Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) work by recording accurate GPS signal data, highlighting possible disruptions to radio waves in the Earth’s ionosphere.

PhD research project

Disturbances to the ionosphere caused by storms on the surface of the sun can disrupt trans-ionospheric radio signals, causing problems for satellite communication equipment. The ionosphere remains the largest source of error in the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Kinrade’s research focuses on atmospheric disturbances in the magnetically dense polar regions. The long-term study of these polar conditions has allowed him to collect data that will now be used to develop a greater understanding of the ionosphere and its processes; the aim to improve future GNSS positioning performance and provide atmospheric error corrections to other satellite-based applications, such as the use of P-band radar to determine Polar ice cap thickness from space.

“My supervisor had deployed all the GPS receivers 12 months earlier, and as they’re located at remote sites and data can't be transferred via satellite, my job was to go back there and pick up the data manually,” he explains.

“What we’re doing is using GPS signals to image the Earth’s atmosphere in a remote sensing application called inversion tomography,” he continues. “We can get these lovely time-lapse 3-D images of the ionosphere. The polar regions act as a gateway to space, as any material that’s ejected by the Sun travels and gets caught up in our magnetic field. This process fuels the polar atmosphere, producing some weird and wonderful effects which aren’t seen anywhere else. A spectacular visible effect of this is the Northern and Southern lights: the Aurora. That’s a visible indicator of material arriving from space into our atmosphere.

“There are other effects that you can’t see with your eyes that we can monitor with GPS signals. We look at something called ionospheric scintillation, which is a rapid fluctuation in GPS signal amplitude and phase as it propagates down from space. If severe enough you can lose communication with that satellite, but the reason why that happens isn’t fully understood. It’s well studied at the Equator where scintillation can be quite extreme, but on a large scale, it hasn't been done in the Antarctic before.”

The images produced from Kinrade’s research will be used to produce propagation maps that will help in the future design of GPS mitigation schemes.

“In critical or safety of life applications, you don’t want to be losing one satellite or using a bad satellite for your position calculations, because that reduces your accuracy. You can then monitor which GPS signals are experiencing scintillation or which are not using your position and then prioritise the good ones. That’s the general idea,” he explains.

The Antarctica trip

Kinrade’s trip lasted six weeks, during which time his team flew between a number of remote and isolated field sites. At each base the team would collect data, service the equipment and at some sites they even installed new wind turbines.

“Before we left the UK we went through intensive physical training; you have to be fit because the high altitude at the South Pole makes the air very thin and you can easily be exhausted just climbing a couple of steps,” Kinrade says.

“Jet lag is also a problem for field parties in the Antarctic as there are multiple time zones,” he continues. “Our team was travelling between various field camps on Antarctic Survey Time and to the South Pole which is on New Zealand Time: a 13 hour difference!”

Snow training

They also completed a week of snow training on arrival in the Antarctic, acclimatising to the bright conditions and -35 degree centigrade temperature. Even with all this preparation the experience was still very surreal.

“Just living in a tent in the Antarctic for a number of days was testing,” he says. “At Site Eagle, we had amazing weather. The wind would drop off and you’d have total silence. It was a bit like living in a Stanley Kubrick film, it was very surreal. When the wind gets up, the surface snow lifts and you can’t see anything; then it felt like living inside a ping pong ball.”

Amazing experiences

Despite there being a lot of hard work involved, Kinrade had some amazing experiences down South. For example he spent his first ever Christmas Day away from home at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

“The station was pretty big actually; there were about 240 Americans stationed over Christmas. They blacked out the windows on Christmas Eve and we had a Christmas dinner, which was lovely. It was nice to see darkness for a change as it was daylight for 24 hours a day while we were out there,” he says. “There was a Christmas run around the station too. It’s emphatically entitled the ‘race around the world’ because you travel across all of the Earth’s longitude lines.”

Stopping off for fuel, or due to bad weather, gave Kinrade the chance to see rare sites like the Union Glacier and stay at Fossil Bluff, one of the oldest active British Antarctica survey stations.

“Flying around was one of the highlights,” he says, “I got to sit in the cockpit a lot of the time. Flying over the sea ice, past Mount Vinson, seeing Antarctica from the air is a privilege. It was also amazing to see all the animals in their untouched environment as well.

“I was lucky enough to have some free time when I was dropped on an island where people seldom visit alone. I tentatively walked amongst an Elephant seal colony - they are absolutely enormous and really smell! I also saw killer whales, Adelie and Gentoo penguins, fur seals, Skua birds and a whole variety of other wildlife.”

Future plans

Now back in his office at the University of Bath, Kinrade is hoping to publish the results of his research this year, attend some conferences and present his findings.

“The next two years I plan to write as many papers based on the Antarctica research as possible. We also have receiver arrays up in the Arctic latitudes so we’re looking to do hemispheric comparisons, discover if the same things happen at each pole,” he says.

He also has some interesting post-PhD plans.

“We often are in contact with people based in Italy who are also working on GPS research. I’ll probably look to do a postgraduate research position for a year or so in Italy if I can swing it,” he says.  “I might look at going back to the Antarctic with the British Antarctic survey, as there’s an 18 month post which looks for someone with my skills,” he concludes.

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