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Antarctic concept vehicle unveiled

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"Ninety Degrees South" could extend the range of ground-based Antarctic exploration.

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Design 360
Antarctica
Technology (general)
Science and Technology

LONDON, England (CNN) -- An innovative Antarctic exploration vehicle has been unveiled by London's Royal College of Art and the British Antarctic Survey.

Designer James Moon, a graduating Masters student at the RCA, said that "Ninety Degrees South" was the first vehicle specifically designed for the Earth's most inhospitable wilderness.

The two-man transport provides a lightweight, environmentally-friendly and more adaptable alternative to the snowmobiles and large tracked vehicles currently favored by those working in Antarctica.

"I'm naturally an adventurous person with an interest in exploration and for my project I wanted to do something for extreme environments," Moon told CNN.

"In Antarctica all the technology used is adapted from military vehicles so when I found out there wasn't a purpose-built Antarctic exploration vehicle I was intrigued."

Since the Antarctica Treaty came into force in 1961, banning the militarization of the continent and protecting its environment, Antarctica has been an important area of scientific study.

Around 4,000 scientists and support staff living in 45 research stations around the continent during the summer months, falling to around 1,000 during the winter.

As well as temperatures below -50 degrees Celsius, Antarctic visitors must contend with fierce winds and blizzards, while the vast hole in the ozone layer over the continent also causes high levels of UV-radiation.

Unlike snowmobiles, therefore, Ninety Degrees South provides full protection from the elements for its passengers.

The vehicle's combination of front wheels and rear tracks enables it to operate on ice, snow or hard surfaces, giving it greater operational adaptability than conventional exploration vehicles.

Moon said Ninety Degrees South was small enough to be transported around Antarctica by light aircraft and would cause minimum environmental damage -- a key consideration towards maintaining the continent as a pristine wilderness.

Pathfinder technology also enables the vehicle to move quickly and safely over unknown terrain. A small GPS-controlled unit travels ahead of the main vehicle connected by a 30-meter umbilical cord and uses ground penetrating radar to identify potential dangers.

Moon said the technology had applications beyond polar transportation and could be adapted for automated vehicles designed to explore other planets.

The Antarctic is a key testing ground for technology intended for use on other planets because its environment is the harshest that Earth has to offer.

"I'm particular interested in overcoming the dangers of traveling across crevassed areas of ice," said Moon. "Unknown terrain limits the speed of any journey over the ice -- the faster you can detect crevasses the quicker you can travel. I believe the pathfinder technology serves as a prototype for future, entirely automated, expeditions in the Antarctic and on other planets."

A model of Ninety Degrees South is currently on display at the RCA, with Moon now looking for investors to take the project further.

"I'd love to take it down [to Antarctica] to test it out," he said. "It's a massive project to take on but hopefully someone will want to invest in it. The British Antarctic Survey was really supportive from a technical point of view. At the RCA the stuff we do tends to be quite conceptual, but they've helped me to ground it in reality."

David Blake, head of technology and engineering at the British Antarctic Survey said that "Ninety Degrees South" could open up new areas of polar exploration.

"James Moon's concept is very novel and a vehicle built to his design could enable new areas of activity to be undertaken in Antarctica, including ground based deep field surveys," said Blake.

"James' vehicle is innovative and challenging and I am delighted at his enthusiasm and drive in developing his concept vehicle."

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