Survival of the fittest

Raging heat and frigid evenings, sweeping dunes and vast, shifting landscapes: the Middle East desert is as magnificent as it is treacherous. Don’t venture out without T2’s survival kit.

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  May 11, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|The desert was once little more to mankind than a tomb preserving the legacies of ancient civilisations. But today tells a very different story. While history remains encased in the vibrant orange sands underfoot, awaiting exploration, technology is opening the mystery to all.

Giant GPS satellites orbiting the Earth can plot a man’s course through even the deepest of deserts. Turbocharged engines power off-road vehicles up and over dunes while solar panels harness the sun’s rays, offering electricity where appliances would once have faltered.

We’re carving out our name in the sand — literally planting great swathes of greenery in areas such as Abu Dhabi, UAE, to sustain life where nothing grew before.

Arid land ecosystems reach across forty percent of the globe, affecting close to twenty percent of the world’s population. It’s a staggering mass of limited water, swirling dust storms and slow, slow rates of biological activity.

The Middle East is home to a vast and varied range of environments, including tropical, alpine and coastal habitats — but it is the desert, with its undulating dunes, reaching on and on to the horizon, that reigns as the most evocative of all the Middle East’s landscapes.

Some people travel deep into the heart of the desert with the eyes of the archaeologist. Others venture out simply for the thrill of opening up the throttle on a dune buggy.

Whatever the goal, you’ll want to carry the right tools for the job: canisters that keep your precious drink cool; pen-sized devices that deliver purifying chemicals into water; rugged communication devices that don’t rely on urban networks for a signal — and that won’t succumb to humidity or dust.

But while the list of devices available to help us penetrate the desert goes on, so too will technology be asked to protect the desert, to preserve its unique and fragile balance. The Middle East is booming. Annual rates for population growth and urban expansion are at an all time high. Business opportunities will bring increased pressure to bear on the region’s natural assets and water resources must be managed in a sustainable manner.

Clearly, the future promises bold economic developments and generous standards of living. But that can only be realised in a clean and nurtured environment — protected of course by the powerful arms of technology.

||**||Tune in to WorldSpace|~||~||~|Somewhere up there, 22,300 miles above the earth, the WorldSpace AfriStar and AsiaStar satellites are hovering in geostationary orbit, beaming audio and multimedia content down to specially manufactured WorldSpace receivers.

Each device is equipped with the patented Starman chipset: it’s the first application of a new, digital compression technology, covering Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. A third satellite, dubbed AmeriStar, is due to follow later this year and offer the same audio service to Latin and South America.

Each WorldSpace satellite delivers three transmission beams. Each beam can carry over forty broadcast channels and covers close to 14 million square kilometres. Service providers can uplink broadcasts to the appropriate satellite via small satellite dishes on a frequency of 7025-7057 MHz.

Headquartered in Washington DC, the WorldSpace business was founded in 1990. The current menu of broadcasts includes eight international music services and two spoken-word services, hosted in English, which are unique to the WorldSpace system.

24x7 is hailed as a virtual nightclub, broadcasting tunes from world-renowned clubs such as the Limelight in New York, Subterania in London and Hong Kong’s Big City. If you’d rather rock out to the likes of Offspring and Smash Mouth then Bob is your man, hosting the WorldSpace ‘modern rock’ channel.

The WorldSpace satellites decode the broadcaster’s signal and return it to Earth on a frequency of 1452-1492MHz. Uniquely flat antennas, mounted on each receiver, then capture the signal.

Most are detachable and include enough cable to move around until you find the best position. The package will run on an external AC power adapter but, to enjoy radio in even the most inhospitable of places, you’ll want to take advantage of the internal battery.

WorldSpace is itself the brainchild of Mr. Noah Samara, born in Ethiopia in 1956 and raised in Tanzania. Surprisingly, three-quarters of the world’s population lack adequate radio reception — WorldSpace was launched to redress that fact.

“People are as developed as the information they can access,” said Samara. “We are committed to creating information affluence. Radio reaches out to people where other media simply can’t. It goes deep into people’s minds, appealing to their imaginations, rather than overwhelming their senses.”

“Radio gives people the space to create,” he added. “When we listen to radio, we are active without being tied down. The digital satellite audio service we’re bringing to Africa, Asia and soon to Latin America, is a modern-day extension to the world’s oral tradition.”

||**||GPS is here to stay|~||~||~|We’ve been getting lost long before man first put pen to paper and drew up a map — let alone devising an electronic navigation system that could cover the globe.

Of course, the problem becomes more acute when you’re surrounded by miles of repetitive, if beautiful, sand dunes, each identical to the untrained eye.

And yet we’re only now getting the process right. Earlier navigation systems include LORAN and OMEGA, but these offer limited coverage and have always proved susceptible to outside interference. So, when the US Dept of Defense decided that its military needed a precise form of worldwide positioning, it threw down $12 billion and produced GPS: the Global Positioning System.

It’s a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of 24 satellites and their ground stations. Many believe that relying on a single navigational structure (i.e. GPS) would be a mistake, and that older ground-based systems should be maintained alongside it.

But there is no real argument: satellites are here to stay and GPS remains the most efficient navigation system yet to be deployed.

In essence, the satellites serve as reference points. When you need to assess your position, a GPS receiver calculates your distance from three satellites by measuring the travel time of your radio signals.

Your exact location can then be triangulated. In fact, advanced GPS systems today can track you within a centimetre. GPS receivers have also been miniaturized to just a few integrated circuits. A basic unit is extremely economical: small and accessible.

Casio is battling to become the master of the wristwatch. From personal organisers to cameras to MP3 players, it can all be found in a package that you can strap on your arm. No prizes for guessing, then, that Casio has also released a wristwatch GPS. In fact, following on from the Navi PAT-1GP released last year, Casio US has just launched its Navi PAT-2GP, the smallest and lightest GPS watch in the world.

And it's not just on your person that you can now store GPS devices. Whether you travel by boat, car or plane, you can fit GPS onboard and traverse the world safely. Garmin has unleashed the GPSMAP 162 for exactly that purpose, complete with an International BaseMap detailing waterways, habitats, major roads and political boundaries.

It boasts a 4.2” backlit LCD display, can be adapted to run on any car battery and will download up to 2.5 MB of extra map data from Garmin’s “MapSource” line of CD-Roms.

||**||Mercedes hits the dunes|~||~||~|Meet the G-Wagon. “Gelände”, in German means terrain, specifically, difficult terrain. “Wagen” stands for wagon or vehicle, leaving the G-Wagon, or rather the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, to translate as the Mercedes-Benz All Terrain Vehicle.

In plain English, this is as tough as it gets, 300hp of fury ready to meet Nature head on and carve a path through to the other side.

The real car race began as long ago as 1680, when Christian Huygens first toyed with the internal combustion engine. Soon followed by the work of J.J. Etienne Lenoir in 1859, and Nikolaus A. Otto in 1876, it didn't take long for the world to fall in love with the automobile.

Otto’s engine operated on a 4-stroke cycle very similar to the model that powers our cars today. Gottlieb Daimler made good use of the Otto principle when he invented — allegedly — the first ‘modern’ internal combustion engine. And again, the current 4-stroke is a not-too-distant relative of Daimler’s invention.

Just who can claim the title of ‘the father of the car’ is a tricky one: simultaneous breakthroughs are notoriously difficult to disentangle. While many would nominate Daimler, fans of Karl Benz would quickly disagree.

Jump in the new G-500 and the pro-Benz lobby seems to make perfect sense. But, in truth, the argument is academic. What matters is that the prestige off-road vehicle is no longer a concept, but instead, an only-too-seductive reality.

The top-of-the-line G500 packs a 300hp V8 three-valve gasoline engine, with fuel injection and dual ignition. You can push it to 200kph and still burn just 14.7 litres per 100 kilometres travelled.

This more responsible side to the desert warrior also offers some of the most sophisticated exhaust emission controls around — tailored to the tougher emissions standards of the future. All terrain and available in convertible, short or long station wagon, the G-class monster is a unique blend of power and panache, of guts and of glory.

Steve Bijok, general manager of Ben Sulayem Performance, is the man most people in the Middle East charge with modifying vehicles to take into the desert. His clients read like a list of who's who in the region, including King Abdullah II of Jordan and Mohammed Ben Sulayem himself.

All of which means, more than ever, that these mean machines have to be ready for anything the dunes can throw at them.

“Really, we zero in our horse power,” Bijok explained to T2. “The key to desert driving is having enough power, enough torque, under your right foot. People understandably look for the best sand tyres, the optimal diff lock, but it’s raw power that takes you up to the top of a dune — with a minimum change in gears.”

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