Emergency Neighbourhood Communications Courtesy Of HELPER

For many people, phone and Internet connectivity are omnipresent and always available. It’s possible to upload selfies from a Chinese subway, and search for restaurant reviews in most highway towns, all thanks to modern cellular connectivity. However, in emergencies, we’re not always so lucky. If towers fail or user demand grows too large, things can collapse all too quickly. It’s in these situations that HELPER aims to flourish.

HELPER stands for Heterogeneous Efficient Low Power Radio. It’s a radio system designed to operate in the absence of any infrastructure, creating a pop-up network to serve community needs in disaster areas. Users can share information about available resources, like water, gasoline and food, while emergency workers can coordinate their response and direct aid to those who need it.

It’s a system built around commonly available parts. Raspberry Pis run the back end software and communicate with individuals over WiFi, with LoRa radios handling the longer-range communication from node to node. Combining this communication ability with GPS location and stored map data allows users to more easily find resources and assistance when things go wrong. The journal article is freely available for those wishing to learn more about the project.

It’s a project which aims to keep people safe when conventional networks go down. The key is to remember that once disaster strikes, it’s usually too late to start distributing radio hardware – emergency gear should be in place well before things start to go south. Of course, there’s also the government side of the equation – in the USA, the Emergency Broadcast System is a great example of emergency communications done right. Video after the break.

23 thoughts on “Emergency Neighbourhood Communications Courtesy Of HELPER

  1. So… these people, they don’t understand what amateur radio is for, do they?

    In an emergency, the last thing you need is a publicly available communication network – it will quickly be overwhelmed with non-essential chatter. I’d love to see a real world test of this system compared to a couple of Baofengs and a notepad.

    1. I agree, leave the priority communications to the professionals. However, as a supplemental network for individuals, this could be great. After a disaster, it could be quite beneficial for everyone to have access to communications like this for non critical issues. Like finding cats, socializing and trade of non emergency supplies. This has the potential for dramatically increasing morale in many situations, something quite useful. It could also be used as receive only for individuals from professionals.

      1. Also, suppose the network were to have enough bandwidth that the lost-cat channel wouldn’t swamp the medical-supplies channel, that would encourage people who only care about lost-cat traffic to run nodes too, which could ultimately increase the reach and resilience of the network.

        The naysayers puzzle me. Yes, let’s make communication out-of-reach for the vast majority of the population. What kind of superiority complex do they have? Sure, a lot of people are idiots, but that applies to smugly superior whackers just as well.

    2. Believing in “form follows function,” what sort of communications is this addressing? FRS radios are cheap, and work to talk to your next door neighbor or family member in the basement. In my area, for wider communication, the local CERT teams have set up a neighborhood network using GMRS, which is good for several miles. The local fire department, other demands allowing, says they will monitor the CERT frequencies to get damage reports, needs for medical help, etc.

  2. If this system could link into the Gotenna Mesh network & various ham radio mesh networks via some kind of raspberry pi crossband repeater gateway. I think it would then have a much better chance of being useful.


    Jim – KH2SR

    1. APRS has been around for a long time, some mobiles have it built-in along with gps, and software like Xastir is already in use ( see http://xastir.org/index.php/Main_Page )

      Also, in our area we are expected to keep the repeaters clear to allow actual coordinated emergency response nets to come up as the community planners drills expect. If you are not active in the net drills, than your conversations are not considered an effective use of resources.

      There is also a possibility that in some severe situations the government can suspend all amateur activity….

    2. Gotenna was my first thought, too — it’s closed-source, but widely deployed in some areas. An open-source equivalent would be nice, and interoperability would be the icing on the cake.

      I like the idea of using cellphones as the UI, which then link to a local “backpack” node that’s equipped with longer-range radios. This seems to be a good division of labor, where the network nerds can build network devices, and not worry too much about ergonomics or GPS power management or whatever.

      I feel like lots of early mesh schemes were hobbled by the expense of GPS receivers — many routing algorithms benefit greatly from knowing where the nodes are physically, but adding $80 to every node was tricky to justify. Now that GPS receivers are under $10, and any backpack node can also just assume it’s within a stone’s throw of a wifi-linked phone and just assume the phone’s location, that’s basically a non-problem anymore.

  3. Unfortunately, the developer things that when disaster hits everyone is going to be nice. There’s a good chance to have bad actors on the network who can then go out and steal resources from people. I don’t think having a communications network is a bad thing, but I think it should be limited to the response teams to know where resources are and to get them to the people who need them.

  4. Would a LORA only solution where the end users connect to the network with custom LORA devices have advantages? Cell phones don’t have very good performance when it comes to battery life, a simple unit with a small character display and a low power radio might be more suitable for some situations

    1. I refuse to pay through the nose for small amounts of cellular data, so pondering slapping a LORA module on the bottom of an old palm pilot for this sort of setup, terminal access to linux box at home, antenna high on roof.

  5. I think something like this would be useful for families to stay in touch.
    As an amateur radio operator, I can see both the advantages and disadvantages of such a system.
    The advantage is, a family would have the same resource so they all can contact each other.
    The disadvantage is, unless it’s a closed system for the family to use only, anyone can listen in and come steal
    whatever resources you have (water, food, etc.)
    When we had the Nisauqally earthquake, the cell system was overloaded, the police/fire/medical trunked radio
    system was overloaded and went into some sort of default configuration. Bottom line is, if it is public it will be overloaded.
    FRS is another option, but it’s not as common as a cell phone. Thing is, when the cell networks go down, things like
    Zello and other forms of “radio” apps are useless.

  6. I can not fathom exactly whom you would want to reach out to with such a system. In today’s world after a disaster occurs they tow in a few trailer mounted cell systems and everybody has reasonably efficient communications once again. The cellular infrastructure puts a lot of calls in a a little space and the efficiency goes up as more cell sites are added. And the carriers are generally pretty quick to drag their equipment in. Loss of revenue if not being humanitarian.

    BTW, calling hams pros is oxymoronic.

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