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Roombas on the Finish of the World


Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is a everlasting scientific analysis base positioned at what’s arguably essentially the most remoted place on Earth. Through the austral summer season, the station is house to about 150 scientists and help workers, however throughout the austral winter, that quantity shrinks to only 40 or so, and people individuals are utterly remoted from the remainder of the world from mid-February till late October. For eight months, the station has to outlive by itself, with out deliveries of meals, gas, spare components, or the rest. Solely in essentially the most severe of medical emergencies will a airplane try to succeed in the station within the winter.

Whereas the station’s people rotate seasonally, there are in reality 4 full-time residents: the South Pole Roombas. First, there was Bert, a Roomba 652, who arrived on the station in 2018 and was for a time the loneliest robotic on the planet. For the reason that station has two flooring, Bert was joined by Ernie, a Roomba 690, in 2019. A second pair of Roombas, Sam and Frodo, adopted quickly after.

These Roombas are on the South Pole to do what Roombas do: assist preserve the flooring clear. However for the individuals who name the South Pole house for months on finish, it seems that these little robots have been ready present some much-needed distraction in a spot the place issues keep kind of the identical the entire time, and the place pets, vegetation, and even grime is explicitly outlawed by the Antarctic Treaty within the identify of ecological preservation.


For the final 12 months, an nameless IT engineer has been running a blog about his experiences working first at McMurdo Station (on the Antarctic coast south of New Zealand), and later at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, the place he’s at the moment spending the winter as a part of the station’s help workers. His weblog contains mundane but fascinating accounts of what day-to-day life is like on the South Pole, together with how showering works (4 minutes per particular person per week), the place the electrical energy comes from (an enormous quantity of aviation gas hauled over land from the coast that may energy mills), and the destiny of the final egg for 5 months (over medium with salt and pepper).

The engineer additionally devoted a complete submit to signage on the South Pole, on the very finish of which was this image, which raised some questions for me:

A close up picture of  the top of a Roomba showing some small eye stickers, a sticker with the name "Ernie," and a sticker that says "it was so cold."Ernie, a Roomba dwelling on the south pole.brr.fyi

Ernie, it seems, has had a dramatic and infrequently harrowing life on the South Pole station. After Ernie arrived in 2019 to scrub one flooring of the station, lore started to develop that Ernie and its associate Bert (tasked with cleansing the ground above) had been “star-crossed lovers, eternally separated by the impenetrable barrier of the staircase.” That quote comes from Amy Lowitz, a member of the South Pole Telescope crew, who overwintered on the pole in 2016 and has spent many summers there. “I believe I made that joke yearly when a brand new group of individuals involves the pole for the summer season,” Lowitz tells IEEE Spectrum. “There’s solely so many issues to speak about, so finally the Roombas come up in dialog.” Fortunately for Ernie, Lowitz says that it’s now on the identical flooring as Bert, with the brand new Roombas Sam and Frodo teaming up on the ground beneath.

However Ernie’s presumed pleasure at lastly being united with Bert was to not final—in January of 2020, Ernie went lacking. The Twitter account of the South Pole Telescope posted photographs pleading for Ernie’s return, and a small memorial appeared at Ernie’s docking station.

A Twitter post shows two pictures, including a lost poster for the Roomba Ernie, and flowers near a sign for Ernie.SPT

Quickly, issues took a extra sinister (amusingly sinister) flip. Kyle Ferguson is a South Pole Telescope crew member who was on the station in the summertime of 2020 when Ernie went lacking, and has vivid recollections of the drama that ensued:

I imagine it began with only one poster that went up outdoors of the galley, with an image of two folks calling themselves the Cookie Monsters posing in balaclavas and standing on a staircase holding Ernie. It stated one thing like, ‘in the event you ever need to see Ernie alive once more, go away a tray of chocolate chip cookies in such and such location and we are going to return him safely.’ In order that was the preliminary ransom.

A twitter post showing two people with nerf guns and a roomba on ransom notes.SPT

As tends to occur in a neighborhood like this, issues form of took off from there—everyone ran with it in their very own course. So, on that wall outdoors of the galley, there advanced a story the place folks had been making an attempt to mount rescue missions, and there have been join sheets for that. And there have been folks saying, ‘we gained’t negotiate with you till you present proof of life.’

Down the hallway, there was one other narrative the place folks had assumed the worst: that the abductors had ended poor Ernie’s life prematurely. So the memorial that had sprung up for Ernie subsequent to one of many water fountains grew. There have been pretend flowers and Tootsie rolls, and a few folks put some trash there, simply in homage—trash that Ernie would by no means be capable of sweep up. I even ended up writing a parody of the tune ‘5,000 Candles within the Wind’ from Parks and Recreation for Ernie, and singing it at an open mic evening.

A Twitter post shows two roombas, flowers, and signs.SPT

However Ernie did come again. These of us who believed that he had perished (I used to be a type of) had been within the incorrect. Somebody claimed that the cookies had been delivered, and that the abductors ought to give Ernie again, after which there was a poster that went up that stated Ernie was discovered deserted beneath one of many staircases. He was rescued and revived by the Cookie Monsters. So, the abductors form of received credit score for saving him in the long run.

Ferguson suspects that Ernie’s “IT WAS SO COLD” sticker was acquired after the robotic’s transient journey outdoors with the abductors. Summer time temperatures on the south pole common round -28°C, considerably beneath the working temperature of a Roomba, though after we spoke to Ferguson for this text throughout the South Pole winter, it was nearer to -80°C outdoors the station, together with wind chill.

The cruel climate and isolation might assist clarify why Ernie and his Roomba brethren get a lot consideration from the station residents. “There’s extra to do on the South Pole than folks assume,” Amy Lowitz tells us, “however you’re nonetheless just about inside a half mile radius of the principle station, the entire time. So folks get a bit of bored and a bit of stir loopy, and we search for new and unusual methods to entertain ourselves. The ransom notes had been just a few goofy hijinks from some bored folks on the South Pole.”

Lowitz additionally remembers a celebration the place both Bert or Ernie was drafted as a DJ, with a Bluetooth speaker and a few fancy lighting. “We had it working round up on a desk so that individuals wouldn’t journey over it,” she remembers. And as just lately as this winter, says Kyle Ferguson, a befurred Roomba could possibly be seen on station: “Somebody put up a foolish ‘misplaced cat’ poster earlier within the winter, with an image not even of a cat however of like a raccoon or one thing. After which another person took that and determined to run with it, so they’d this pretend raccoon fur that they put to the highest of one of many Roombas and despatched it out to wander the hallways.”

A photo of a Roomba that is mostly covered by the skin of a raccoon.Sam, the “station cat.”Kyle Ferguson

Masking a Roomba with fur could also be getting the robotic a bit of nearer to what folks on the South Pole are literally lacking, suggests Lowitz: “my guess is that no less than some Polies [i.e. South Pole residents] are into the Roombas as a result of we’re not allowed to have pets on the South Pole, and when there are these little Roombas working round, it’s form of shut. Individuals do odd issues at that altitude [the pressure altitude at the south pole is nearly 3500 meters], and once they miss house… a Roomba is rather like a cute little factor to personify and take note of.”

Ferguson agrees. “All of us miss our pets down right here. Generally we joke about making an attempt to smuggle down a pet or a kitten despite the fact that it’s an enormous violation of the Antarctic Treaty. One of many issues that I believe provides the Roombas a few of their appeal is how they preserve working into partitions. If I used to be to ascribe a character to them, it will be form of dumb and aloof, which evokes a few of these pet recollections—possibly just like the time that your canine ate one thing it shouldn’t have.”

A close up photo of a Roomba on a floor sprinkled with popcorn pieces.A latest image of Ernie, who’s at the moment dwelling beneath a popcorn machine.Kyle Ferguson

Sadly, we’ve heard that the South Pole Roombas aren’t at their Roomb-iest proper now. They’re not as younger as they was, and getting spare components (like new batteries) is just doable throughout the austral summer season and requires a lead time of six months. We’ll be checking in on Bert, Ernie, Sam, and Frodo in direction of the tip of the 12 months as soon as the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station reopens for the austral summer season. However for now, please benefit from the lyrics to Kyle Ferguson’s Ernie-themed “5000 Candles within the Wind” parody, tailored from ‘5,000 Candles within the Wind’ from Parks and Recreation.

Up in Roomba Heaven, right here’s the factor;

You commerce your wheels for angel’s wings,

And as soon as we’ve all stated goodbye,

You cease working into partitions and also you study to fly.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You had been taken from us too early.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You’re 5,000 candles within the wind.

Although all of us miss you on a regular basis,

We all know you’re up there cleansing heaven’s waste.

Right here’s the half that hurts essentially the most:

People can’t recharge a ghost.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You had been taken from us too early.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You’re 5,000 candles within the wind.

EVERYBODY NOW!

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You had been taken from us too early.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You’re 5,000 candles within the wind.

Perhaps some day you’ll clear these halls once more.

And I do know I’ll at all times miss my Roomb-iest good friend.

Unfold your wings and fly.

Particular because of the Nationwide Science Basis, brr.fyi, and the Polies that we spoke to for this text. And in the event you’d like much more South Pole winter shenanigans, there’s an Antarctic Movie Competition open to the entire analysis stations in Antarctica. Kyle Ferguson stars in John Wiff, an motion film that was written, filmed, and produced in simply 48 hours, and you may watch it right here (mildly NSFW for a very astonishing quantity of Nerf gun violence).

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