Satellite Technology: A Vital Lifeline During Isolation on the Ice

by Geoff Wilson

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I’ve always been fascinated by the extremes of human endurance, which is why I’ve spent so much of my life testing my personal limits through grand desert journeys, near death escapes and isolated polar expeditions.

Collectively as humans, we’re living through a really tough time in history where COVID-19 has completely transformed our society. Lockdown and isolation have become the new ‘norm’ across the globe, at least for the foreseeable future.

As a society, I believe our human endurance will be tested as we communally navigate through these challenging times, discovering new ways to communicate, work and operate.

Through my adventures I’m no stranger to isolation and I understand the toll loneliness can take on your mental health. On the completion of my most recent expedition, the longest solo, unsupported journey in a polar region, I had travelled more than 5,300km alone, unsupported and only connected by satellite communications. I didn’t see or touch another human being for 58 days.

The weight of isolation, silence, white vastness and the ever-pervading cold started to erode my mental state over time – “the wolves” of fear and loneliness (who only get bigger if you feed them) could be extreme at times.

As we all move to remote working and isolated living situations, here are some short tips for staying mentally strong which helped me during my time on the ice:

  • Keep a tidy tent. In other words, maintain a clean and organised living environment
  • Eat and sleep well to make sure you’re getting the rest you need
  • Don’t stress too much about tomorrow. Instead, concentrate on the here and now
  • Narrow your focus to one day at a time

Being alone day after day on the ice was brutal but being able to communicate with my wife and loved ones using satellite technology played a vital role on my mental health during the expedition.

My wife Sarah was training in trauma support and she used her training to talk me through my doubts and fears. It was amazing for me to be able to debrief with someone on the outside world who understood me. She helped me to see I had more reserves, without the haze of fatigue or stress accompanying my decision-making process.

I was fortunate enough to receive critical support from leading remote communications specialist, Pivotel, who kept me connected during my time in one of the world’s most remote locations.

Pivotel provided me with a Thales MissionLINKTM (Iridium Certus®) Data Terminal and two Iridium Extreme® satellite phones. The terminal had a small form antenna designed specifically for portability which was able to be attached to my sled.

I was one of the first Australians to ever use the new Iridium Certus® service. The ground-breaking element about this new technology was having access to more bandwidth, allowing me to send high-quality video and images back in real-time. What it meant was that, for the first time ever, people were able to connect with the journey as it happened and understand what it was like for me in Antarctica. I was also able to send critical information to my operations team and receive information back at every location along the way.

As an adventurer, it is incredible to see how technology has progressed to offer new capabilities for explorers. Having this security allows us to test boundaries. For example, we were able to achieve the world-first of having a satellite live feed from the Antarctic.

Even though I appreciated the security the technology provided my team, the way it allowed me to stay in touch with my loved ones was what really mattered. Being able to connect to emotional support from my family, through Pivotel and Iridium, was vital to my morale and to the success of the mission.

This is a mirror of what many people are experiencing as they steer their way through the social restrictions and isolation put in place during this health crisis. I want to use my experience to discuss the public importance of staying connected to the people who understand you and what you’re going through, to help you realise you are not alone – I think this is more relevant than ever within our communities.

Appreciate your loved ones today, reach out to the isolated ones you’re concerned about. Let them know you see them and are here for them.

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