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An adventure in Antarctica inspires NZ Space Challenge finalists

22 May 2018

A childhood dream to explore Antarctica has led a Tauranga-based tech expert to design an innovative solution to navigate the extreme environments of Antarctica and outer Space.

That design has earned him the place of regional finalist in the NZ Space Challenge and his team will attend the Grand Final of the national challenge in Christchurch this Thursday.

The concept is the brain child of GPS Control Systems Ltd and group mastermind John Ahearn said the mission was to find new way of transporting large-scale science projects further into the polar region than ever before.

Ahearn’s team have designed a Global Navigation Satellite System to help heavy tracked vehicles detect and avoid perilous ice shelf crevasses while traversing the Antarctic ice fields - and potentially some of outer space’s trickiest pitfalls.

“A convoy of heavy tracked vehicles can drag many more tonnes of equipment than a plane can carry, and can travel in almost any weather. The constraint is ice shelf crevasses, which our navigation system tackles,” Ahearn says.

 He said other benefits were minimising crew stress and fatigue, getting equipment where it needs to be safely and on time and compliance with the Antarctic Treaty.

GPS Control Systems beat other applicants from Northland, Auckland and the Bay of Plenty to emerge as one of the five NZ Space Challenge regional finalists.

Ahearn admits he may have a competitive advantage over other teams as he recently visited the Antarctic on a field trip as part of a Post Graduate Certificate in Antarctic studies at the University of Canterbury.

“My assignment was about Machine Control Applications in the Antarctic, which focused on guiding machines across the ice shelf to the hot water drilling site,” he says.

He chose that topic because it relates closely to his professional experience – and the hope that it would result in the opportunity to return to Antarctica with his work mates to install one.  

“A convoy of heavy tracked vehicles can drag many more tonnes of equipment than a plane can carry, and can travel in almost any weather," - John Adearn.

“They were of course, very envious of my trip!” he says of team mates Wade Riley from Hawkes Bay and Russell Van de Laak of Pukekohe.

“So yes, it would appear I have a competitive advantage from thinking about this problem for a long time and having been down there. I like to think it was my creative and innovative mind at work but maybe it was just very good luck,” he says.

As well as real-life experience on the Antarctic, Ahearn says he’s been fan of the icy continent for a very long time.

“My interest in the Antarctic comes from reading the stories of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration when I was about 8 years old,” Ahearn says.

“The journeys of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and others were absolutely amazing. Not only did they explore but they did science on the way,” he says.

Now, over a century since the first Antarctic expeditions, The NZ Space Challenge brings together some of the brightest minds from across the country to use space data and intelligence to solve navigation issues on the ice in the Antarctic.

It is the brain child of space enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, Eric Dahlstrom and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom who have forged international careers in the space community and have chosen to settle in New Zealand, establishing SpaceBase with fellow co-founder Rich Bodo.

SpaceBase has partnered with economic development agency ChristchurchNZ to deliver this national challenge and the winners will be announced in Christchurch on Thursday May 24 as part of the Techweek’18 event, Extreme Environments – from Antarctica to Space.

ChristchurchNZ chief executive Joanna Norris says New Zealand has a vibrant tech sector full of world-class ingenuity, as clearly demonstrated by the finalists.

“We’re very proud to support the growth of the country’s technology and innovation sectors, which are growing rapidly and make an important contribution to the nation’s economy,” Ms Norris says.

“These world-leading solutions to the challenges presented by Antarctica and Space are not just good for our country, but innovation that’s good for the world.”

This Thursday Ahearn and his team will join the five other regional finalists to pitch their Antarctic navigation innovations to a panel of national and international judges, with $40k going to the winning designer.

The event will appeal to those from the science, research, technology, innovation and education eco-systems and anybody with an interest in the Antarctic and Space and saving the world.



Notes to editors:

The other four regional finalists in the NZ Space Challenge are as follows:

  • Dunedin, Southland and Otago
  • Deep Space Labs, who have developed new multi-spectral data analysis techniques, powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence that will allow for safe, quick, and inexpensive science to be conducted across Antarctica and throughout the solar system.
  • Wellington, Palmerston North, Wanganui and Taranaki
  • UTIG Cryo Group, who have based their solution on a proven autonomous airborne radar system, analysis techniques developed for the reconnaissance of the icy moon Europa, and Antarctic demonstrated drone technology.
  • Christchurch, Canterbury, Marlborough and West Coast
  • JIX Limited and Orbica Limited, with their Pokémon GO-style augmented reality system that uses holographs and geospatial datasets to visualise the physical environment and navigate the terrain of Antarctica.
  • Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Waikato
  • Kiwi Orbitals, with their concept of a completely reusable, recoverable, aerospike powered suborbital rocket – designed to carry 4kg to 40km altitude.