Antarctica has been, just before space, the last frontier that the human being tried to cross. And in a way it still is. From the first sightings of the so-called Terra Australis Ignota (The unknown land of the south) by the Spanish navigator Gabril de Castilla at the beginning of the 17th century, passing through the expeditions of Amundsen, Scott or Shackleton.
Today Antarctica continues to be a strange place in every way. At the legal level, it is a condominium where the States have agreed not to interfere, ensuring that the maintenance of its ecology is preserved above all else. In practice, only a handful of military bases from different countries and scientists inhabit it to collect information, study it and see what it has to continue teaching us. Also, because we must not forget, it is difficult to live in Antarctica.
That it remains an inhospitable site shows that to date Google Street View, the service associated with Google Maps that the search engine company started in 2007, has barely been able to put its cameras on the continent. And it is that, although Street View has not yet reached many regions of China, Russia or Africa, it is largely for political reasons rather than technological ones. In Antarctica, however, the barrier itself is physical.
To date, only a couple of areas of Antarctica can be visited from all over the world through Google Street View. In 2010 they managed to take some images of the Half Moon Island, and from there some points in collaboration with scientific and military expeditions such as the iconic Ceremonial South Pole. Nothing more.
Now, like the ancient explorers who, beyond their jobs, enrolled in expeditions, a UX designer from Uruguay has set out to gradually enlarge this map on his own. His name is Nicolás Bianchi, and this week he left for Antarctica on a flight together with scientists and military personnel in a Lockheed C-130B Hercules aircraft of the Uruguayan Air Force. The destination, the Artigas Antarctic Scientific Base of Uruguay on King George Island, in the South Shetland Islands, where most of the military bases of the countries that have some point on the frozen continent are located.
Map Antarctica, why not?
Bianchi, UX designer at Mercado Pago by day and amateur photographer by night, tells Hipertextual that the idea of the expedition arose as great ideas often arise: in a conversation with friends and between beers.
Bianchi, in an image uploaded to his social networks
“The idea arose spontaneously. I have collaborated in some Google programs and meetups linked to my professional branch, user experience, and I have been the typical enthusiast who randomly visits parts of the world with Street View. And one day, I thought of all that remained to be tracked in some territories, such as Antarctica”, he tells us in a hotel room, where all the passengers of the flight that would later head to Isla del Rey have had to quarantine. Jorge to prevent COVID from also traveling with them.
In fact, the pandemic has been a limiting factor for this expedition. "Originally it was going to be done in 2020, but we all know what happened," he tells us.
The trip has been his initiative and as such most of the expenses have been borne by him with the help of some sponsors, including GoPro, who will provide him with the camera to take the 360º images. He is accompanied by his brother Santiago, and they have been able to travel taking advantage of one of the five routes that the Uruguayan Antarctic Institute makes a year to carry food and remove garbage, always taking advantage of the southern summer.
“Groups of scientists from various projects are also going on this trip, including one for the analysis of microplastics in Antarctica, where they analyze, among other things, their obvious and unfortunate impact on the environment. They take samples of plastics that have been arriving in Antarctica for years from fishing boats, cruise ships…” he says via video call.
What can be seen of the Ceremonial South Pole are some images taken in 2010.
Bianchi has the knowledge and approval of the Google Street View team to later upload those images and help him in his dump once he returns home, although both parties make it clear that there is no commercial or sponsorship relationship between them.
Explore without WiFi and with weak GPS
Once there, the plan is to spend six weeks and walk different paths and trails on King George Island. “We will not be able to travel to the continent – which I hope I can do on another occasion – because there the restrictions for civilians are much greater, but if all goes well we will be able to record what the island on which a large part of the bases is located is like, their routes, maybe we'll run into some penguins… It's going to be exciting”, he tells us.
The technological challenge is also important. In Antarctica there is Wi-Fi, but not too powerful. And the GPS is also weak. Nicolás and his brother will walk around the island with a GoPro MAX that records 6K in 360º on a backpack that will serve as a walking tripod that weighs about 25 kilos. They carry a Garmin GPS to be able to record the coordinates as best as possible so that they can later be compiled and uploaded to Street View correctly in their location with 5 different GPS software to be able to compare.
But in a world where we are used to backups in the cloud, the most valuable asset is going to be backing up the 5 gigabytes of material generated per kilometer on hard drives. “That is the main danger, that something is lost. Also, that the batteries perform less in the cold, and that we will have to test them well and be vigilant”. At this time, summer in the area, temperatures range between 0 and -5 degrees Celsius below zero.
“It is a one-shot project. Either it goes well, or we'll come back empty-handed," says Bianchi, who hopes that if this goes well at some point he can continue on his way to the Antarctic continent. Judging by the photos that he uploads on his Instagram account, he is doing well. And anyone will be able to check it in a couple of months, when all the material is expected to be processed and already available in Street View.