Hackaday Prize Entry: MyComm Handheld Satellite Messenger

We live in a connected world, but that world ends not far beyond the outermost cell phone tower. [John Grant] wants to be connected everywhere, even in regions where no mobile network is available, so he is building a solar powered, handheld satellite messenger: The MyComm – his entry for the Hackaday Prize.

The MyComm is a handheld touch-screen device, much like a smartphone, that connects to the Iridium satellite network to send and receive text messages. At the heart of his build, [John] uses a RockBLOCK Mk2 Iridium SatComm Module hooked up to a Teensy 3.1. The firmware is built upon a FreeRTOS port for proper task management. Project contributor [Jack] crafted an intuitive GUI that includes an on-screen keyboard to write, send and receive messages. A micro SD card stores all messages and contact list entries. Eventually, the system will be equipped with a solar cell, charging regulator and LiPo battery for worldwide, unconditional connectivity.

2016 will be an interesting year for the Iridium network since the first satellites for the improved (and backward-compatible) “Iridium NEXT” network are expected to launch soon. At times the 66 Iridium satellites currently covering the entire globe were considered a $5B heap of space junk due to deficiencies in reliability and security. Yet, it’s still there, with maker-friendly modems being available at $250 and pay-per-use rates of about 7 ct/kB (free downstream for SDR-Hackers). Enjoy the video of [Jack] explaining the MyComm user interface:

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54 thoughts on “Hackaday Prize Entry: MyComm Handheld Satellite Messenger

  1. Nice idea. screen looks finicky for and on screen keyboard. If a text is 250B that should be quite cheap and more reliable than the VHF adventures normally carry as a backup. Should include an emergency button to text emergency services, possibly a GPS too?

    1. Hi Tore, thanks for the comments. We have done quite a lot of testing with the keyboard and while it looks quite small it’s actually very usable. We do actually plan to add a button that would send a user configured “emergency” message to a select group of contacts. Please just get in touch if you have any more suggestions. Thanks!

    2. Plus a monthly fee of 8GBP. Not much if you have to transmit vital data from the middle of nowhere, but too much to measure the temperature in your garden shed just for fun.

      1. Hi cyk, you’re right, but the pricing isn’t finalised yet, we’re currently using a modem from an Iridium reseller as it speeds up the prototyping work but the monthly fee is set by them. Going forward we would like to go to Iridium directly and ideally we don’t want to have a monthly fee. We think it could be useful for remote data logging, etc and are planning a Log entry about that soon.

  2. Why not just have a solar powered battery back also containing the sat. module to go on a cheap android phone that connects via Bluetooth or the USB port to send and receive messages? Then you can have an emergency tracking function that sends your GPS coordinates to recipients along with a status message.

    1. Hey Dan,
      We spent a long time trying to decide if it should be a stand-alone unit or something like you suggest that connects to a phone. In the end we decided to go with a stand alone unit to begin with so that it could still be used if someones phone was broken or had run out of battery. The aim is to add Bluetooth support going forward, possible on a simpler version that doesn’t have a screen.

      1. Hi John,

        It all depends on an use case – i.e. in how much distress will user of such device be. Single all-in-one device is great if it is ONE thing you grab and hold it for your dear life if you survived a wreck of a means of transportation far from civilisation and network coverage. In that case, I would like it to be strapped to my lower arm, “Predator” flick style, so that I couldn’t accidentally lose it when I begin losing my consciousness.

        In a little less harsh situation, say while venturing out in the wild, it would be nice if I could use solar battery to bring both my cellphone and my sat text thingy to life. In that case maybe It would be even more useful if it pretended to be a cellular station relaying text messages over Iridium back home as needed, but also allowing all companions in a group (never go alone into the wilderness!) to communicate with each other over camp vicinity area, perhaps even provide each “subscriber” with readout of the distance from the camp. Cellular station concept would allow usage of even simple cheap cell phones (better battery life) with no bluetooth and with zero configuration connection. It could also enable detection of cellphone-carrying unknown neighbours (local inhabitants) in vicinity, which could be important for asking help from, or avoiding if deemed hostile.

        1. A portable cellular base station is well away from what this device is. I imagine that would cost a huge amount of money, and be illegal anywhere that already has mobile phones.

          Maybe letting the thing act as a solar battery charger might be helpful in an emergency, but an adventurer might already have one of those. And it’d put more strain on the battery and power system. Possibly requiring it to be up-rated, for a secondary use that’s better done another way.

          I think they’re going the right way sticking to it’s intended purpose. That said an emergency button might be handy. There’s all sorts of people could use that, you could even do a Bluetooth-programmed version (or USB or whatever) that just has one button, no display, so kids or confused old people could use it. Just one button and maybe an LED or something, that can light up when the device receives an “OK” text, so your family or carer can text the device back with “OK” to let the user know that the message has been received and read. Or maybe a 2-line LCD to display received messages.

  3. I wish there were a good RX/TX SDR we could build things like this from. Adding 406mhz(EPIRB satellite distress beacon), and VHF air band(including 121.5 beacon and voice) would make a really cool all-in-one aviation backup radio. From there it is just software and a few more freqs(in UHF) to add VOR, localizer, and glideslope. Additional modes for distress might be marine VHF and a radar transponder.
    Pretty much I want to do the AN/PRQ-7 better minus the encrypted modes. http://radionerds.com/index.php/AN~PRQ-7

    That said I want one of these DIY satcom text messengers in the mean time, please sell as a kit. Any ideas on getting it up to IPX4 or higher water resistance?

          1. In the US, just ask NOAA for a time slot.

            Some beacons have a specific time to test “According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, ground testing of A-, B-, and S-type ELTs is to be done within the first 5 minutes of each hour. Testing is restricted to three audio sweeps.”

            For ham radio operators testing an APRS emergency beacon, usually they send notices though the network a head of time that they are about to initialize a test, include a note that this is a test in the beacon, and then send more notices that the test has concluded and there is no emergency.

          2. For the new 406mhz digital beacons(only ones GPS and doppler pass satellite trackable) you need to have the beacons hex ID registered to you, then you can contact SARSat-Cospas mission control and/or your national SARSat affiliated SAR agency and arrange a planned detection and verification, I suppose also the GPS and other data bits reading of your test by your beacon’s ID. I think there is also a live dump of Sarsat somewhere out on the net where you can realtime your arranged test.
            IMHO if it were not an only a SAR service there are if I recall several leftover bits in the digital signal beyond ID and lat/lon which would be useful in a backwards compatible v2.0 of the service with limited list of ‘whats wrong’ information by the signalling party. At least the older ACR (I have an Aerofix) units appear to be easily hackable with split 406 radio and GPS with their own batteries joined by a data line. But being an international emergency asset anything beyond hacking together a better EPIRB for emergency signalling is to create a tragedy in the commons.

      1. Do you absolutely have to have an anechoic chamber or could you make do with a Faraday cage. I took a tour of the Motorola campus or at least the part that became ‘Motorola Mobility’ once. They had a ‘room’ made from 2x4s and chicken wire that they used as a Faraday cage. I forgot what decade this was left over from, I do remember that it was not a recent one. They said they still use it sometimes though!

        1. You could test basic functionality but not antenna pattern in a Faraday cage. The ones I have worked with were made of sheet metal, not chicken wire. Any openings in the cage should be significantly smaller than the wavelength being tested.

          1. Bill – And don’t forget grounded to a cold water pipe or something – otherwise then what’s the point? The POTUS carries one of those with him everywhere outside DC. I’m not sure but I think USSS calls it the “Cone of Silence”** – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Get Smart American TV series of the 1960’s with Agent Maxwell Smart played by the late Don Adams.

            ** Portable SCIF


    1. Hi Dave,
      We will definitely be investigating how to make it more ruggedised/water resistant once the main prototyping work is done. One thought is to have a version that doesn’t have a screen so that it is completely sealed, it would connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth for user input, etc.

      In terms of selling a kit what would be most interesting – a full kit for the MyComm device including case, etc or a development type kit, maybe like an Arduino shield?

      1. This is my first day digesting the RockBLOCK,I have been thinking of an Iridium messenger device for some time, I am liking the works all on it’s own device as something to throw into a flight bag for general aviation in remote areas. Adding bluethooth to the kit is fine, but on a breadboard we all could DIY add BT to an arduino family processor and the RockBLOCK is a super hacking friendly AT black box. The reason for the kit is to benefit from advanced design skills, while we can 3d print a case if you do a run of kits you can have a high impact water resistant case and good keyboard able to be re-opened made far more easily than a DIY printed case which probably requires permanent sealing to pass >IPX3 equivalent. Not to mention we all could benefit from the dedicated time, sought advice, and effort you are putting in to winning the contest by making a good communicator, especially if you keep everything hackable where you make available version upgrades for software and make available hardware upgrade kits or at least help us sourcing upgrade parts. Another reason for a nice looking cased kit is to not be hassled by airport security with a DIY suspicious electronic device covered in silicon sealant.

        1. Hey Dave. Yeah the idea of the standalone device was to be able to throw it in a bag and forget about it till you need it so I’m glad to hear you think that’s potentially useful. We are definitely aiming to make something hacker friendly as we believe it’s a really useful technology. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If you ever have any questions about the RockBLOCK you think we can help with just drop us a message.

  4. Looks like you might have something here.
    If I ever do any traveling again I would love to have one of these.
    And That would take a lottery and a divorce.
    Good work.

    1. You could insure your wife’s life for a lot of money, then take her travelling somewhere with a lot of precarious cliffs. Kill all 3 birds with one stone. Just sayin’…

          1. Yeah, because I am an adult in a successful long-term marriage with a beautiful and intelligent person, something you will never be or have.

            Did it ever occur to you that suggesting that the lives of wives are of lesser value (what are you Taliban?) is no different that telling jokes along the lines off “*iggers have no soul so it is OK to kill them…”?

          2. And yet you don’t have a sense of humour. Women often like that, you know, men too. Congrats on finding a beautiful and intelligent partner who’s attracted to someone who’s bizarrely angry all the time, seemingly for no reason. If I were you I’d keep her / him.

            As far as wives pushed off cliffs for the insurance money, there’s probably a charity somewhere you could volunteer at, applying Wile E Coyote-style bandages to their poor foreheads.

          3. You always resort to blatant lies when you know you have been caught out, an adult would just STFU, or even better acknowledge their error and move on.

            What I have, that you do not have, should have shown you the error of your ways, but your personality is so distorted that you have stopped learning and cannot progress any further in your personal development. Sad. But it is good that the gene pool is free of any contributions from you, very good indeed.

          4. O-kay. Well, I suspect a lot of this argument is taking place only within your mind, the best place for it. So I’ll leave it in there, you can finish it off for me, and let me know how I do after it’s finished. Ta.

      1. I have always wondered:
        1- How did Breitling get EPIRB hex codes for those watches when they obviously do not fulfil the requirements of an EPIRB (avenue for making/registering a fully DIY 406 digital beacon?)
        2- will a Breitling Emergency reliably ping a SARSat on 406mhz or be readable at any range on the 121.5mhz civil aviation guard channel?
        3- Without a GPS location component in the beacon signal is there enough battery life for several Sarsat low orbit receiver equipped satellite(vs the geostat sarsat birds) doppler-only location passes.

          1. I have occasionally checked over the last few years, but in the end it is all self advertising, not too much specific and certainly no independent lab test results.

      2. If I was relying on it, I might want a purpose-built beacon with all the physical standards and whatnot, built to be tough, and have a decent battery and range. Which might make it impractical for the watch form factor.

        If I wanted a watch, I’d want one that wasn’t bogged down with half a ton of electronic gubbins.

        If I wanted an expensive wrist-ornament to attract shallow and dishonest men or women, for the wrong reasons, then I’d probably get something more stylish than one of those Breitling beacon things.

        I suppose their market is “massive nerd who’s just floated his Internet fad company” with money to burn, who wants it for the gadget-factor and novelty. Perhaps he’d wear it on business flights or something. I dunno. I don’t see a massive market for it, to be honest. For the adventurers in the world who aren’t Richard Branson, there’s probably better options in many ways.

        The communicator in this article is a much better idea. Be nice to be able to email or text people while you wait for the helicopter, or inform them to bring a few more pints of blood.

    1. Is that just a GPS and a mobile phone module? Thing is, you get them in mobile phones anyway! You could do it cheaper with an app, there probably is one. A phone so rugged might not be cheap, but you could take the chance of it breaking and just buy a replacement. I suppose for an intended use of mountain climbers or whatever it’s worth the money, pretty cheap really considering a presumably small market. Probably one of those SOC mobile phone chips with everything on one. Probably a lot like a phone design.

      A hacker might be able to get a cheap phone, months ago here an article mentioned places in the USA selling smartphones for next to nothing. You could get one, strip it down, and put it in a case compliant with standards for taking a knock. Add some features with the space that’s left, maybe use Bluetooth to set options to customise the messages and stuff it sends, via another phone, or web browser.

      There’s a problem I’ve thought of, which is that keeping GPS and a phone connection on constantly eats up power. But keeping it mostly asleep means a delay when you activate it, to get your satellite lock and network logon done. Wonder how that’s done? A delay of a minute or so before it starts working might be fatal in the sort of situation it’s useful in.

      Perhaps you could do it both ways, as a user option.

      Would be good, too, to give it a primary-cell battery, as well as a (presumably) lithium. For the shelf life, just in case your lithium runs out.

      Or, cheap version, one of those AA-cell phone chargers with the USB output. They’re pretty good. Bet the power output’s not too clean though.

      1. I think staggering GPS and sat uplink by several minutes saves battery. Adding solar cell would help. I think when we got the USAF to drop that stupid Bush administration GPS crippler app. the system got much better for civilians. I think accuracy and link times have been increased. Do the Russians have this issue with their Glonass?

    2. That’s an interesting device I haven’t seen before, thanks for sharing it. The ruggedness and form is pretty nice and I can see why the functionality would be useful. Very interesting!

  5. I’ve been brainstorming again and wondering what a HaDer could do with Dishnet or Hughes net Mobile earthstation at $79/month USD. Approximately that price with 1year commit. Just thinking out loud… This project is about 10/month USD but not two-way and is canned messages I think. Still a cool idea. Just saying…

    1. Not sure I’m following correctly but just wanted to say the MyComm device is two-way and the user can input the messages they want to send. It won’t do internet though and that’s where things like Hughes or even the new Iridium NEXT services could be pretty cool…

      1. John Grant – Good to know. I misread the OP. 2-way is key. And random-access to text input is very cool. The Internet suggestion means you’d have to llug around a metal parabola on a tripod and critical aiming would be needed. They call it the RV package as no landline would be possible for billing and stuff in an RV. They’d do that with the up-link. Your idea is clearly superior! I saw an old idea like this in Popular Science or PM back in the 80’s or 90’s. The inventor was sending up quick RF bursts of inputted text data to conserve battery life.I think it was 2-way also. It was the size of a big rectangular candy bar with a 2~3 line LCD screen and mini keyboard.haven’t heard any more about it until this project.

  6. Great idea! My dad Ventures into Africa regularly. His biggest challenge is to send a ping back home to indicate ask is still well. Cell towards are sparesly distributed and very unreliable. Roaming often is not working and local Sims are a mess. This would be a great tool for him.
    Maybe also some way of reporting GPS coordinates to a tracking service

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