From Castle Point to Antarctica, Stevens Professor Mo Mansouri, Tackles Logistics

9/30/2013

The researchers who live and work in Antarctica face one of the most difficult logistical challenges anywhere in the world. They survive in a remote, cold and dangerous location and have to rely on receiving supplies from a long international chain while also sending volumes of complex data in the other direction. And because the researchers want to preserve the wild continent’s pristine environment, they really do make sure to keep every single supply stored and counted.

That’s a logistics challenge a team of Stevens students and professors is looking to tackle. The team, led by School of Systems and Enterprises professor Mo Mansouri, is working on its Virtual Antarctica project to help the ice continent’s researchers track their resources.
“The project is to model all processes and activities that happen in a huge inter chain of logistics,” Mansouri said. “How we can make everything more efficient and effective is the question.”

The project combines databases, models, simulations, sensors, crowdsourcing and other metrics to create dashboards, apps and other tools that enable researchers and their suppliers to make better decisions, a vital skill in such a harsh environment. “We want to create a system that gives us all the information that we need by collecting data,” Mansouri said.

Mansouri said anywhere from 800 to 1200 American researchers spend time in Antarctica during a year, and that around 150 stay year-round. Most arrive and stay from October to April, which is the “best” time of year to visit Antarctica because of when the southern hemisphere enjoys the spring and summer seasons.

The United States maintains three permanent stations in Antarctica, including the McMurdo Station, the continent’s largest. Over thirty other countries maintain either a permanent or summer base on the continent. All of the inhabitants rely on a long supply chain involving special ships, planes and other vehicles coming from thousands of miles away with hundreds of tons of stuff.

Besides minding the need to track their supplies to survive and the rationale that a smart organization would in any situation, the researchers are also conscientious about preserving the Antarctic environment. They can’t just dump broken parts in the nearest landfill, for example, a constraint that adds to the logistical challenge. “The researchers don’t want to leave any trace, so everything that goes has to come back,” Mansouri said.
The Stevens team is working on the Antarctica Project alongside Lockheed Martin, which operates under a contract from the National Science Foundation. The team began planning the project in May and has been operational since July, working out of the Center for Complex Systems and Enterprises. The SSE has matched Lockheed’s financial grant.

Almost a dozen Stevens students are contributing to the project, including five undergraduate seniors, one underclassman, two graduate students and two doctoral students.

“I’ve been learning a lot about applying model simulation towards real-life decision making problems,” senior Matthew Chang said. “I like that I’m able to apply my systems knowledge to an important cause.”

Mansouri said he thinks the project will give the students experience tackling large, real-world problems. “Hopefully what we see is that it’s going to be a fantastic platform for education for our students to be involved in a real project and try to solve a hard problem using real data,” he said.
Mansouri said he envisions the Antarctica project feeding into a larger Lockheed project lasting several years. “We’ll continue the research,” he said. “There a lot of little details to work out, and we’ll need many people, but so far this has been a really successful project.”