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Work continues on the Polar Pod, a brainchild of intrepid French adventurer, scientist, medico and sailor Jean-Louis Etienne. Following concept testing in 2014, a new model of the Polar Pod spar-buoy laboratory recently underwent tank tests in Brittany at a facility operated by French institute of marine research and exploration Ifremer.

The Polar Pod to explore southern waters is often compared with the International Space Station. Whereas the ISS orbits Earth, the Polar Pod will drift around Antarctica driven by the inhospitable region’s strong currents and winds. Drifting at an average speed of 2kph, the lab will record in situ measurement data to improve our understanding of the planet’s main carbon sink.


163506 polar pod
© DR

The concept (©: Polar Pod)

Two-month rotations

The Polar Pod will take about two years to circumnavigate the icy continent. Crews, each comprising three sailors and four scientists, will rotate every two months to ensure continuous data collection.

The latest tests were performed on a smaller model than that used in 2014 (1:68 vs 1:41). The aim was to study the effects of ocean waves on the structure, its motion and motion-induced loads. The resulting data will be used to refine design, materials and safety margin trade-offs.


171223 tfr Le bassin d'essais d'Ifremer accueille une nouvelle maquette au 1/68e du futur Polar Pod, notamment, pour affiner l'effet des vagues sur la structure.

Testing the 1:68 model in the Ifremer test tank (©: Le Télégramme)

250sq.m for a crew of seven

In the Furious Fifties, the swells are often 4 to 5 metres high, rising to 10m in high winds. Add wind waves to the swell and you get a total wave height of 15 to 18m. To date, no computer model can replace physical tests on scale models in a test tank. Precision measurements of wave loads and their effects are the only way to engineer structures with confidence. “By using a lightweight aluminium pod, we aim to limit motion in high seas,” says naval architect Laurent Mermier of Lorient-based Ship Studio. The pod atop the 100-metre-tall spar buoy will offer 250sq.m of laboratory and living space. The crew of three sailors and four scientists will monitor the Pod’s trajectory and operate the instruments. “We’ve received lots of applications from prospective crew members,” said Jean-Louis Etienne on 7 July “and it looks like the first captain will be a woman!”.

The scientific aims of the project will focus on ocean-atmosphere exchanges, ocean noise as measured by hydrophones, the validation of satellite measurement data, and water quality studies, including the presence of microplastics.


163504 polar pod
© DR

The pod proper (©: Polar Pod)

€14m to build

No fewer than 52 organisations in 12 countries have expressed interest in the project. The French government was the first to provide funds for testing and data analysis. The next step, says Jean-Louis Etienne, will be “a call for proposals, to be issued before the end of the year, to build the Polar Pod for no more than €14 million. Construction is scheduled for 2018-19, testing for 2020, and the first mission for around 2022.”

Original by Le Télégramme staff reporter Stéphane Jézéquel translated and adapted by Steve Dyson.


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