sout pole humor roomba kidnapped
© SPTSouth Pole Roomba Ernie was kidnapped in 2020.
Robotic romance, ransoms, and raccoon suits at the South Pole

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is a permanent scientific research base located at what is arguably the most isolated place on Earth. During the austral summer, the station is home to about 150 scientists and support staff, but during the austral winter, that number shrinks to just 40 or so, and those people are completely isolated from the rest of the world from mid-February until late October. For eight months, the station has to survive on its own, without deliveries of food, fuel, spare parts, or anything else. Only in the most serious of medical emergencies will a plane attempt to reach the station in the winter.

While the station's humans rotate seasonally, there are in fact four full-time residents: the South Pole Roombas. First, there was Bert, a Roomba 652, who arrived at the station in 2018 and was for a time the loneliest robot in the world. Since the station has two floors, Bert was joined by Ernie, a Roomba 690, in 2019. A second pair of Roombas, Sam and Frodo, followed soon after.

These Roombas are at the South Pole to do what Roombas do: help keep the floors clean. But for the people who call the South Pole home for months on end, it turns out that these little robots have been able to provide some much-needed distraction in a place where things stay more or less the same all of the time, and where pets, plants, and even dirt is explicitly outlawed by the Antarctic Treaty in the name of ecological preservation.

For the last year, an anonymous IT engineer has been blogging about his experiences, working first at McMurdo Station (on the Antarctic coast south of New Zealand), and later at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where he's currently spending the winter as part of the station's support staff. His blog includes mundane yet fascinating accounts of what day-to-day life is like at the South Pole, including how showering works (four minutes per person per week), where the electricity comes from (a huge amount of aviation fuel hauled over land from the coast that will power generators), and the fate of the last egg for five months (over medium with salt and pepper).

The engineer also devoted an entire post to signage at the South Pole, at the very end of which was this picture, which raised some questions for me:
roomba eddie south pole station
© brr.fyiErnie is a Roomba living at the South Pole.
Ernie, it turns out, has had a dramatic and occasionally harrowing life at the South Pole station. After Ernie arrived in 2019 to clean one floor of the station, lore began to develop that Ernie and its partner Bert (tasked with cleaning the floor above) were "star-crossed lovers, forever separated by the impenetrable barrier of the staircase." That quote comes from Amy Lowitz, a member of the South Pole Telescope team, who overwintered at the pole in 2016 and has spent many summers there. "I think I made that joke every year when a new group of people comes to the pole for the summer," Lowitz tells IEEE Spectrum. "There's only so many things to talk about, so eventually the Roombas come up in conversation." Happily for Ernie, Lowitz says that it's now on the same floor as Bert, with the new Roombas Sam and Frodo teaming up on the floor below.

But Ernie's presumed joy at finally being united with Bert was not to last — in January of 2020, Ernie went missing. The Twitter account of the South Pole Telescope posted photos pleading for Ernie's return, and a small memorial appeared at Ernie's docking station.
lost roomba south pole
© SPT
Soon, things took a more sinister (amusingly sinister) turn. Kyle Ferguson is a South Pole Telescope team member who was at the station in the summer of 2020 when Ernie went missing, and has vivid memories of the drama that ensued:
I believe it started with just one poster that went up outside of the galley, with a picture of two people calling themselves the Cookie Monsters posing in balaclavas and standing on a staircase holding Ernie. It said something like, "If you ever want to see Ernie alive again, leave a tray of chocolate chip cookies in such and such location and we will return him safely." So that was the initial ransom.
roomba ransom note south pole
© SPT
As tends to happen in a community like this, things sort of took off from there — everybody ran with it in their own direction. So, on that wall outside of the galley, there evolved a narrative where people were trying to mount rescue missions, and there were sign-up sheets for that. And there were people saying, "We won't negotiate with you until you provide proof of life."

Down the hallway, there was another narrative where people had assumed the worst: that the kidnappers had ended poor Ernie's life prematurely. So the memorial that had sprung up for Ernie next to one of the water fountains grew. There were fake flowers and Tootsie rolls, and some people put some trash there, just in homage — trash that Ernie would never be able to sweep up. I even ended up writing a parody of the song "5,000 Candles in the Wind" from Parks and Recreation for Ernie, and singing it at an open-mic night.


But Ernie did come back. Those of us who believed that he had perished (I was one of those) were in the wrong. Someone claimed that the cookies had been delivered and that the kidnappers should give Ernie back, and then there was a poster that went up that said Ernie was found abandoned underneath one of the staircases. He was rescued and revived by the Cookie Monsters. So, the kidnappers sort of got credit for saving him in the end.
Ferguson suspects that Ernie's "IT WAS SO COLD" sticker was acquired after the robot's brief trip outside with the kidnappers. Summer temperatures at the south pole average around -28 °C, substantially below the operating temperature of a Roomba, although when we spoke to Ferguson for this article during the South Pole winter, it was closer to -80 °C outside the station, including wind chill.

The harsh weather and isolation may help explain why Ernie and his Roomba brethren get so much attention from the station residents. "There's more to do at the South Pole than people think," Amy Lowitz tells us, "but you're still pretty much within a half mile radius of the main station, all of the time. So people get a little bored and a little stir crazy, and we look for new and strange ways to entertain ourselves. The ransom notes were just some goofy hijinks from some bored people at the South Pole."

Lowitz also remembers a party where either Bert or Ernie was drafted as a DJ, with a Bluetooth speaker and some fancy lighting. "We had it running around up on a table so that people wouldn't trip over it," she recalls. And as recently as this winter, says Kyle Ferguson, a befurred Roomba could be seen on station: "Someone put up a silly 'lost cat' poster earlier in the winter, with a picture not even of a cat but of like a raccoon or something. And then someone else took that and decided to run with it, so they had this fake raccoon fur that they put to the top of one of the Roombas and sent it out to wander the hallways."
roomba south pole costume cat
© Kyle FergusonSam, the "station cat."
Covering a Roomba with fur may be getting the robot a little closer to what people at the South Pole are actually missing, suggests Lowitz: "My guess is that at least some Polies [i.e. South Pole residents] are into the Roombas because we're not allowed to have pets at the South Pole, and when there are these little Roombas running around, it's sort of close. People do odd things at that altitude [the pressure altitude at the South Pole is nearly 3,500 meters], and when they miss home...a Roomba is just like a cute little thing to personify and pay attention to."

Ferguson agrees. "We all miss our pets down here. Sometimes we joke about trying to smuggle down a puppy or a kitten even though it's a huge violation of the Antarctic Treaty. One of the things that I think gives the Roombas some of their charm is how they keep running into walls. If I was to ascribe a personality to them, it would be kind of dumb and aloof, which evokes some of those pet memories — maybe like the time that your dog ate something it shouldn't have."
roomba south pole earnie
© Kyle FergusonErnie is currently living underneath a popcorn machine.
Sadly, we've heard that the South Pole Roombas are not at their Roomb-iest right now. They're not as young as they used to be, and getting spare parts (like new batteries) is only possible during the austral summer and requires a lead time of six months. We'll be checking in on Bert, Ernie, Sam, and Frodo toward the end of the year once the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station reopens for the austral summer. But for now, please enjoy the lyrics to Kyle Ferguson's Ernie-themed "5000 Candles in the Wind" parody, adapted from "5,000 Candles in the Wind" from "Parks and Recreation."
Up in Roomba Heaven, here's the thing;

You trade your wheels for angel's wings,

And once we've all said goodbye,

You stop running into walls and you learn to fly.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You were taken from us too early.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You're 5,000 candles in the wind.

Though we all miss you everyday,

We know you're up there cleaning heaven's waste.

Here's the part that hurts the most:

Humans cannot recharge a ghost.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You were taken from us too early.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You're 5,000 candles in the wind.

EVERYBODY NOW!

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You were taken from us too early.

Bye-bye, Roomba Ernie.

You're 5,000 candles in the wind.

Maybe some day you'll clean these halls again.

And I know I'll always miss my Roomb-iest friend.

Spread your wings and fly.
Special thanks to the National Science Foundation, brr.fyi, and the Polies that we spoke to for this article.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.