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Dartmouth Engineering PhD Student Discovers the Gift of Failure

November 2, 2020

By Julie Bonette

After years of work on his polar ice observation buoys, Dartmouth PhD Innovation Program student Cameron Planck watched all five of his prototypes fail within just one month. Disappointed, he went back to the drawing board, spending years more refining and improving every part of the design.

And it worked.

"We ended up with a buoy that’s half the weight, much faster to deploy, and is fully standardized and documented. We also significantly reduced manufacturing time and instrument cost, which resulted in a design that’s scalable," said Planck, who is now co-founder, president, and principal engineer at Cryosphere Innovation, LLC. "Now, our customers can purchase several buoys for what they used to pay for one, at a cost significantly less than our competitors’ buoys, which aren’t seasonal. At the end of the day, our buoys bring in more data, which means more science."

Cameron Planck
Cameron Planck, co-founder, president, and principal engineer at Cryosphere Innovation, LLC. (Photo by Robert Gill)

The work began in 2015, when Planck started the task of co-engineering the third generation of the Seasonal Ice Mass Balance (SIMB3) buoy to meet an emerging need: year-round observation of Arctic ice, which had become increasingly difficult as more and more ice melted out each summer. Satellites can easily show scientists if the ice cover is growing or shrinking, but without more data, it’s impossible to understand why.

"Our understanding broadly of the Arctic is limited by our ability to observe it, and it’s just so difficult to observe,” said Planck. “So, any opportunity you have to observe is sought after, and every piece of data is coveted."

When Planck joined Dartmouth, he teamed up with engineering professor Donald Perovich, who had received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the buoy project, and utilized early seasonal buoy research from adjunct engineering professor Chris Polashenski

Alongside fellow graduate student, James Whitlock ’18, Planck set out to engineer a better buoy that could not only survive the Arctic summer, but also measure a variety of parameters including sea ice thickness, temperatures in the atmosphere and ocean, air pressure, surface and bottom position, and more.

Planck and Whitlock quickly realized that to achieve all this, they had to design completely custom electronics. It was also important to decrease the cost of the buoys, as they are actually expected to be destroyed by the changing ice cover within a year. 

Deploying what they thought was a successful design, Planck didn’t expect all five of their instruments to fail within just one month. And, as the buoys were in some of the most remote and inhospitable places in the world, it wasn’t feasible to retrieve the equipment and see what had gone wrong. 

Their only option was a complete redesign, and the fact that all the new buoys were successful "wasn’t an accident," said Planck. "It didn't feel like PhD-level work, but we are now able to build this thing that really no one else in the world builds. And, we can do it 30 or 40 times and have the exact same outcome every time."

A redesigned SIMB3 buoy deployed by the MOSAiC expedition.
A redesigned SIMB3 buoy deployed by the MOSAiC expedition. (Photo by Ryleigh Moore)

"It was just amazing to me," said Perovich. "When I built the first buoy around 30 years ago, I just got a bunch of parts, stuck it together, and hoped for the best, but this is very well done."

Planck, whose thesis defense is later this month, entered Dartmouth's PhD Innovation Program once he realized he could commercialize the buoy technology, and, together with Whitlock, co-founded Cryosphere Innovation in 2017. After Whitlock graduated from Dartmouth with an MS in engineering sciences, he joined nearby White River Technologies, Inc. as an electrical engineer, and still serves as Cryosphere Innovation’s primary electrical engineer, though Planck now takes care of all day-to-day operations. 

Planck plans to continue his career at Cryosphere Innovation after he graduates and recently hired his first employees: Derek Alvarez ’21 and Paal (Henry) Prestegaard ’22, both Dartmouth students who he connected with thanks to Thayer Career Services

"It’s really been impressive to see this go from a quirky scientific instrument to a company that produces instruments that are of value," added Perovich. "Cameron is the guy. He's the engineer that made this happen."

The company still faces some hurdles—a number of buoy orders were cancelled due to the pandemic—but Planck is extremely proud of his progress. To date, he has built and shipped 38 buoys for use in polar ice to scientists, energy companies, governments, and nonprofits across the world, as well as to the record-breaking Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition

"I can think so vividly back to my second and my third years, after I put all this work in, and then I failed," said Planck about the biggest takeaway from his PhD. "But that mastery that you get in doing it again, in figuring out those details, is what I think makes you a little bit different. Eventually, you end up knowing more about it than everybody else.”

Learn more about the new and improved SIMB3 buoys, including real-time open-source data via an interactive map, at CryosphereInnovation.com