I read somewhere that the average age of people taking up extreme sports is 38. For me, it was my 40th birthday, which I spent on a 300-metre ice climb in Alberta, Canada. The fascination with mountains started a few years prior to this, but it is the beauty and the tranquillity of them that provides a nice counterpoint to today’s hectic life and a way of clearing my head of all the detailed thinking that accompanies electronics. So, whilst some men of my age buy motorcycles or fast cars (the so-called “Male menoPorsche”), I opted for a more outdoor-related challenge…climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
My first climb at Rogan’s Gully
My wife Sarah and I had been considering making this trip for a few years, but at Christmastime we decided to commit to it. Beware of New Year resolutions! At 5,895m (19,340ft) Kilimanjaro is one of the seven summits (the highest peaks on each continent) and the world tallest free-standing volcano, although thankfully not active.
Sarah and Me
This was going to be tough, but the chance to see the curvature of the earth from the summit, to stand on the highest point of a continent, would surely be worth it. Even attempting it would be a great opportunity to get fit, and we would have eight months to get ready, which would surely be plenty of time? Note to self, just like engineering projects, things frequently get in the way and expand to more than fill the available time!
Let’s log the trip
It is funny how things can coincide, but over dinner I mentioned to a manager that I was travelling to Kilimanjaro (apparently you are entitled to call it Kili only when you have climbed it). A few weeks later this same manager was talking to one of Microchip’s distributors and found out that Chris McAneny was also going—only two weeks before my trip! Chris is undertaking his trip for a great charity, but each trip is equally tough. There are no shortcuts to the top of this mountain.
It was then that it occurred to us, “Wouldn’t it be a cool idea if we could log the two hikes and compare them?” There is another very real consideration. Each year, many people trek on Kilimanjaro. But there is a not insignificant failure rate, mainly caused by the altitude. So, if we built two data-logging devices then we could double the chances of at least one getting to the top.
A data logger is nothing new, nor is taking a data logger to the top of a mountain. But I’ve always considered that ‘practicing engineers’ are just that. We keep ourselves current on the latest technology by constantly reading, discussing and reviewing the latest technologies. The day that you stop trying to learn new things as an engineer is probably the day to buy a nice house in the countryside and retire. Equally, even though we have done something a few times before, doesn’t mean that we should take it for granted. We always debrief, review and re-check our designs.
So it is not a question of if we could build a data logger, but how should we build one. The exercise would be to see what we, as engineers, could learn about building a device for this environment and with a very low-power battery budget, to make sure that our knowledge is up to date and to test the silicon devices in a harsh environment.
The technology has to simply just work. I was watching a video from MIT about the guidance computer on the Apollo spacecraft. Apparently, the engineers could not work out the MTBF of the computer because it worked, every time, without failure. Climbing Kilimanjaro is not the same, but our devices still must work first time.
The Apollo Computer
Sarah and I don’t plan on walking up this mountain more than once, so it must work perfectly. The route up the mountain travels through a rainforest (presumably called that for a reason), so it must be waterproof. The maximum altitude is over 19,000ft, so pressure differentials could damage any enclosure. Temperatures in the lower regions can exceed 35°C, which shouldn’t present a problem for any device designed in Phoenix, Arizona. However, the temperature on the summit can drop to -20°C and wind speeds can easily exceed 80mph.
I’ll let our device designer, Tim Moffat, tell you more about the challenges and goals of his design. In my next blog, I’ll talk about how Sarah and I are training for this adventure.