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The Gift of Failure

Apr 08, 2021   |   by Julie Bonette   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Cameron Plank Th’21 watched as prototype after prototype broke down in the Arctic ice. Failure pushed him to create a better tool to help scientists “see” climate change as never before.

Cameron Planck
Photo by Robert Gill

Cameron Planck set out to capture elusive but essential data on Arctic sea ice, which was becoming increasingly difficult as more ice melted out each summer.

No place on Earth is warming—and melting—as fast as the Arctic. In a race against time, Dartmouth engineers have joined international polar expeditions to better understand the scale of climate change and how it might impact the planet. Satellites can show if the ice cover is growing or shrinking, but without more data, it’s impossible to understand why.

“Our understanding of the Arctic is limited by our ability to observe it,” says Planck. “So any opportunity to observe is sought after—and every piece of data is coveted.”

"“Our understanding of the Arctic is limited by our ability to observe it.”"

Cameron Planck

He deployed what he thought was a successful buoy design—only to watch as the first and then four follow-on prototypes failed within one month. Since the buoys were in some of the most remote places in the world, it wasn’t feasible to retrieve the equipment and examine what had gone wrong.

The only option was to go back to the drawing board.

When Planck came to Dartmouth in 2015, he teamed up with engineering professor Donald Perovich, who had received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the Seasonal Ice Mass Balance (SIMB) buoy project. He also tapped into seasonal buoy research from adjunct engineering professor Chris Polashenski ’07 Th’07 Th’11.

Alongside fellow graduate student James Whitlock Th’18, Planck set out to engineer the third generation of the SIMB buoy (SIMB-3) to survive the Arctic summer and measure a variety of parameters, including sea ice thicknesses and water and air temperatures.

Planck and Whitlock quickly realized that to capture the range of data, they had to design custom electronics. They also had to decrease the cost of buoys, as changing ice cover would destroy units within a year.

When their initial prototypes failed in the Arctic ice, the pair began the exhaustive process of re-engineering every aspect of their design.

Photo by Robert Gill.

“We tested as much as we could, but there were just a lot of things that we didn’t know,” says Planck. Without the original devices to examine, he was forced to double-check every element of the design, from the system’s software to the custom hardware to the manufactured components. “You have to refine and make better every little part of the process,” he says.

Although failure forced him to start again at the beginning, Planck learned how to systematically eliminate its root cause.

“It’s about figuring out how to do simple things really well—and that’s a lot harder than it sounds,” says Planck. “It’s a lot of trial and error and making wiring diagrams and thinking about all these little overlaps that get overlooked.”

He worked his way through the entire system to arrive at a set of SIMB-3 components he believed would survive the harsh environment.

“At some point,” he says, “you just have to cross your fingers, send it back out, and hope it works.”

What has emerged is a system that’s half the weight and easier to deploy than the original design while still able to collect a wealth of information. The 16-foot unmoored buoy houses a battery, antenna, and embedded control electronics. Once it is frozen in place, two acoustic rangefinders—mounted on the top and the bottom of the buoy—enable researchers to measure how snow depth, ice thickness, vertical temperature profile, and barometric pressure evolve throughout the season.

“We also significantly reduced manufacturing time and instrument cost, which resulted in a design that’s scalable,” says Planck, who successfully defended his thesis in November.

He says the redesign made the buoys more mechanically sound, waterproof, and better able to withstand the environment. It also added an important feature: a special chip called a watchdog timer that resets the buoy datalogger after an unexpected lockup.

Not a single instrument has prematurely failed since.

“It was just amazing to me,” says Perovich. “When I built the first buoy around 30 years ago, I just got a bunch of parts, stuck them together, and hoped for the best. This is very well done.”

That success prompted Planck to enter Dartmouth’s PhD Innovation Program to commercialize the technology. In 2017 he and Whitlock, who graduated with an MS in engineering sciences, cofounded Cryosphere Innovation in Lebanon, N.H. Planck serves as president and principal engineer and manages day-to-day operations. Whitlock, an electrical engineer at nearby White River Technologies Inc., continues to serve as primary electrical engineer. They recently hired their first employees: Derek Alvarez ’21 and Paal “Henry” Prestegaard ’22.

“We are now able to build this thing that really no one else in the world builds—and we can do it 30 or 40 times and have the exact same outcome every time,” says Planck. “At the end of the day, our buoys bring in more data, which means more science.”

“It’s really been impressive to see this go from a quirky scientific instrument to a company that produces instruments that are of value,” says Perovich. “Cameron is the guy. He’s the engineer who made this happen.”

The company still faces some hurdles—the pandemic has prompted the cancellation of a number of buoy orders—but Planck is proud of its progress. To date, he has built and shipped 38 buoys to scientists, energy companies, governments, and nonprofits—including the historic Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition.

Learn more about the improved SIMB-3 buoys, with real-time, open-source data via an interactive map, at CryosphereInnovation.com.

Julie Bonette is contributing editor to Dartmouth Engineer.

MOSAiC Arctic Mission

Historic expedition offers insights on the causes and consequences of diminishing sea ice.

Photo by Stefan Hendricks.

Dartmouth researchers, with an international team of scientists, spent nearly a year adrift on a research vessel in the Arctic ice to study the staggering scale of sea ice melt, the ravaging effects of climate change, and its impact on our planet.

Never before had an icebreaker with science and engineering’s best minds ventured so far north during the harsh Arctic winter to gather such comprehensive data in the region of the world hardest hit by climate change.

The Multidisciplinary-drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition ended last fall, concluding the largest Arctic research expedition of all time.

Now, even more important work lies ahead.

Professor Donald Perovich, co-leader of MOSAiC’s sea ice team and a member of the project board, and adjunct assistant professor Christopher Polashenski ’07 Th’07 Th’11 have been analyzing and interpreting the approximately 100 terabytes of data produced.

“The data is the legacy,” says Perovich. “This data set will be used by scientists for years and decades to come, so that’s really pretty exciting.” The goal is to better understand the causes and consequences of diminishing sea ice.

“MOSAiC is providing many insights on what’s happening, but as human beings, we are never satisfied with just knowing what’s happening now, we want to know what’s going to happen in the future,” says Perovich. “Our best means of looking ahead into the future is through climate models—and MOSAiC was designed with those models in mind. Once our data is incorporated into these models, I expect much better predictions about future Arctic states.”

The average person will likely feel the results of MOSAiC’s data, even if they don’t realize it.

“You’re probably not following when the next improvements in climate models are going to come out,” says graduate student David Clemens-Sewall ’14 Th’18, “but you are probably following how much your fire insurance is going to cost, how much your flood insurance is going to cost, what actions your elected representatives are taking to help prepare your community for the climate changes that are coming. I hope the research from this expedition will inform our predictions of the future of climate so that your insurance is being set at a fair rate and your elected representatives are taking the right steps to protect you and your community in the future.”

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