Taking Technology to the Edge of the World

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

An explorer armed with a cellphone ventures into the wild to make medicine out of poison.

In today’s everything-connected world, an afternoon without the Internet can feel like a disaster. Then there are explorers like Zoltan Takacs, who do important scientific research in remote areas, and make do with disconnecting from technology almost altogether.

That isn’t always ideal. Takacs argues that explorers need a more rugged, durable and adventurous class of cell phones and tablets — and in his line of work this type of technology makes sense.

Sometimes with little more than a stick for picking up large beautiful snakes, Takacs ventures into remote and isolated locations — including Micronesia, the Arabian Gulf, Brazil and Peru — in search of venom.

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This is not a death wish. It’s a quest to document uncharted poisons that can be used in clinical trials to develop life-saving medications.

“These [toxins] were designed by nature to take a life in less than one minute.” Takacs said. “That means they are some of the most powerful molecules in the universe.”

Though it may seem counterintuitive, by studying toxins that can attack body systems, researchers can learn how to use the toxins to help instead of hinder.

For instance, medicines that treat heart attacks and high blood pressure were derived from the Asian saw-scaled viper and the Brazilian pit viper toxins (respectively), and the African mamba venom is currently in clinical trials to treat heart failure, according to Takacs.

His job is to go into the wild, locate the poisonous insects, jellyfish and stonefish that contain these toxins. Then he must extract samples and transport them back to the lab without contamination.

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That’s where having access to modern technology in remote areas becomes a critical.

“It’s actually amazing how little technology you need to survive there,” he said.

But he said there are various features on mobile phones and tablets that could prove invaluable to tech-savvy explorers, if only they could use them more freely.

An obvious one is digital maps, as Takacs relies on GPS and satellite images to find his way around in the wilderness.

Another important feature is taking and storing digital photography. This helps Takacs easily show images of the snakes he’s looking for to the native people that don’t speak English.

“It’s really limited what you can do with the mobile phone in the jungle,” Takacs said.

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This is due to a couple of issues with how these devices are designed for the urban-exploring public. A huge limitation, Takacs explained, is battery life.

“If you’re in the middle of the Amazon, the battery is going to run out very quickly,” he said, frustrated with how most phones today are not designed to last for much more than a day without charging.

“I wish there would be a smartphone where the battery would easily last for a week.”

Who doesn’t want that?

In fact, it’s a topic many are trying to tackle.

Savvy engineers at Purdue University recently published Smartphone Energy Drain in the Wild: Analysis and Implications and teamed up with Intel wireless networking researchers to create a software tool that helps smartphones save battery life by controlling restless applications.

While their “in the wild” study focused on everyday use by common consumers, these kinds of power-saving benefits translate well for truly “in the wild” smartphone users like Takacs.

Sure Takacs could turn to military-grade laptops and ruggedized notebooks, but these devices are bulky for anyone who travels light.

Places like rainforests do not provide the luxury of flat terrain for driving big cars that can transport heavy equipment. On most of Takacs’ expeditions, he goes in with a couple of locals and they carry everything they need on their backs, so the volume and weight needs to be minimal.

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Most of their power resources must be conserved for lights in order to see the venomous animals, which are frequently nocturnal. So they make do, relying on solar chargers.

“Sometimes we charge it from car batteries,” Takacs said. Seldom do they get the opportunity to recharge their electronic equipment from a generator.

For most people, being tethered to a power station while their phone is charging is an inconvenience, but for Takacs it’s sometimes a life or death situation.

“The best first aid for a snake bite is the mobile phone,” he said.

“I’ve been bitten six times, including in the Amazon. I had such a bad allergy that we had to rush back to the hospital. Luckily, we had a phone on standby, so we could call our colleagues.”

Naturally, there are complications when calling for help in the middle of the forest.

Does the phone have a signal in the Congo? Is there anyone within range that can come to the rescue? If the bridge has been washed away by water or a truck passed over and destroyed it, then you are stuck there.

It might be possible to call in a helicopter, or a boat with a large enough engine to go upriver, he said. But for that to happen, the explorer needs a working mobile phone.


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