It’s just your bad luck. You’re excavating fossil remains of the last living dinosaurs on earth on a ranch in eastern Wyoming that still has no landlines or cell phone reception. That makes your job doubly difficult.
That’s been the challenge for Justin Woods, technology coordinator for Southwestern Adventist University’s Dinodig Project. Every June since 1997, the university has sent research teams to excavate dinosaur bones. The isolated quarry site is in one of the most dense dinosaur bone beds in the world; the remains of as many as 10,000 animals are buried there. The university is conducting taphonomic research, which studies the precise location of dinosaur bones to understand how the dinosaurs died.
The students and faculty in the field need telecommunications because they use global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to determine where the bones lie. The diggers photograph the bones, record the GPS coordinates, and then export the data to the university’s computers back on campus in Keene, Texas. “The computer can recreate how all the bones looked in the ground before we took the dirt away,” explains Woods.
However, without telecommunications, the Dinodig team couldn’t upload the data to its server until everyone was back on campus because the dig site is “in the middle of nowhere” (20 miles from the nearest paved road.) Woods looked into one-way satellite communications, but that would only get information to them; they would need to install a phone line to send data out, and the cost of that was prohibitive. And, the only way to get cell phone service is to hike into the surrounding hills. So the diggers had to live with no connection to the outside world.
In 2003 the university dug up a solution: it decided to outsource its telecommunications to AgriStar Global Networks, a supplier that provides high-speed communications via satellite to rural and remote locations in the lower 48 states. AgriStar provided the project with Direcway satellite services, along with hardware, software, set up, and support for the Dinodig.
Voila! The Dinodiggers now had high-speed access to the Internet. Woods set up a local area wireless network so the diggers who brought laptops could check their email. “I had better Internet connectivity on the dig than I do at home,” he notes. The Web site featured a daily picture diary so friends and family could see how they are doing. (Much appreciated by Mom and Dad.)
The team sent back-ups of mission-critical GPS data via the satellite link to the campus’ computer database. Researchers were able to efficiently label and document items in-field, creating an automatic Web-based catalogue of all recovered remains as they were found.
Increased Web Traffic Gives the Project a Higher Profile
The team’s live Webcam continually transmitted images of their daily activities direct to the dig’s Web site (http://dinodig.swau.edu). “The photo diary and Webcam drove traffic to our Web site and increased the profile of the project, especially this year,” Woods reports.
Woods discovered the importance of being connected. “Our GPS equipment was having a rough day,” he explains. “If that equipment isn’t working, the project comes to a standstill.” Woods took his laptop, sat on a hill overlooking the dig site, dialed into the high-speed wireless network link to the satellite dish, and downloaded new drivers for the GPS equipment from the Internet. “The whole repair was incredible,” he reports.
Kip Pendleton, President and CEO of AgriStar, estimates 50 million American households live in rural areas that need his company’s services. A more typical customer is an agriculture company that has 50 sites in rural areas.
The outsourcer monitors the systems continuously. If a problem with a satellite dish develops, AgriStar first attempts to solve the problem over the phone. “If not, a truck rolls out,” he says. The company has 5,200 suppliers in its coverage area who can respond to customers like the Dinodiggers to insure continuous service.
If you want to look at the Dinodig photos, here are the links: