LoRa-Powered Birdhouses Enable Wireless Networking When The Internet’s Down

One of the design requirements for the networks that evolved into the Internet was the ability to keep functioning, even if some nodes or links were disabled or destroyed in war. The packet-switched architecture that still powers today’s Internet is a direct result of that: if one link stops functioning, information is automatically re-routed towards its intended destination. However, with tech giants occupying increasingly large parts of the global internet, an outage at one of them might still cause major disruption. In addition, a large-scale power interruption can disable large parts of the network if multiple nodes are connected to the same grid.

Six pieces of wood, with a hammer next to them
Just six pieces of wood make up the birdhouse.

Enter the LoRa Birdhouse project by the Wellesley Amateur Radio Society that solves those two problems, although admittedly at a very small scale. Developed by amateur radio operators in eastern Massachusetts, it’s basically a general-purpose LoRa-based packet-switching network. As it’s based on open-source hardware and commonly available components, its design allows anyone to set up a similar network in their own area.

The network is built from nodes that can receive messages from their neighbors and pass them on towards their final destination. Each node contains a Semtech SX1276 transceiver operating in the 902-928 MHz band, which gets its data from an ESP32 microcontroller. The nodes are placed in strategic locations outside and are powered by solar panels to reduce their ecological footprint, as well as to ensure resilience in case of a power outage. To make the whole project even more eco-friendly, each node is built into a birdhouse that provides shelter to small birds.

Users can access the network through modified network nodes that can be hooked up to a PC using a USB cable. Currently, a serial terminal program is the only way to interact with the network, although a more user-friendly interface is being planned. FCC rules also require all users (except any avian residents) to be licensed amateur radio operators, and all traffic to remain unencrypted. Tests have shown that one kilometer between nodes can work in the right conditions, enabling the deployment of networks across reasonably large areas.

While the Birdhouse Network might not be a plug-and-play internet replacement in case of a nuclear apocalypse, it does provide an excellent system to experiment with packet-switching wireless network technology. We’ve seen similar LoRa-based network initiatives like Qmesh, Cellsol and Meshtastic, all of which provide some way to communicate wirelessly without requiring any centralized hardware.

26 thoughts on “LoRa-Powered Birdhouses Enable Wireless Networking When The Internet’s Down

  1. That’s much nicer than the fake trees they use to “hide” cellphone masts! Shame they didn’t include a camera on the inside of the box though, seems like a missed opportunity!

  2. I don’t like LoRa. It floods APRS, too. We used to have large Packet-Radio networks, world wide, all open source and free to develop for. Then something happened, people left PR behind. Now everyone’s into LoRa, a proprietary modulation scheme only available by one company. It’s all D-Star with its proprietary voice code again. What happened to freedom, independence and pride? Were are the Linux/Open Source people that fight for open standards if you need them the most? *sigh* 😒

      1. But you do have a point.
        The advantage though is that Lora is also for people without a ham license. That requires a corporation behind it.

        I just think that amateur radio is dying out. The clubs i have been to are all aged over 50 and couldn’t bind me as a hobby as well.

        1. I looked at sitting through some classes then scheduling the exam for HAM with the local amateur radio club.

          Everything was scheduled at 8 am on a Saturday. With 2 kids under 5, that’s not feasible. It seems to be targeted towards the school-aged youth or the retired/nearly-retired crowd.

    1. There was a patent on FM, BPSK QPSK, GMSK, … and for the moment that one company owns the patent. But it will expire, it is not like copyright that Disney keep on getting bumped up every few years (In mexico copyright is currently 100 years beyond the death of the author. If the same was true for patents, we would all be riding horses to work).

    1. As it – presumably – has to be mounted south facing for the solar panel to function well, then most birds will shun it. They prefer the opening to face away from the midday sun and prevailing winds. It still makes for an attractive disguised network node.

  3. I wonder if that dinky solar panel can keep a power hungry ESP32 plus a transceiver running.
    I have a weather station with an ESP8266. It has two 12V, 10W solar panels and a 7Ah battery. In winter I have to enable sleep mode on the ESP8266 with an interval of five minutes and still occasionally have to charge the battery.

    1. I live in Minnesota (45 degrees N), and the solar energy differential between winter and summer is pronounced. I average about 1000W/m^2 at midday in the summer, but average only about 70W/m^2 in the endless gray days of winter. My Davis weather station’s small panels can’t keep the two super caps charged, so it needs battery assistance to transmit throughout the long winter nights.

  4. I would love to see similar birdhouses for common internet: be able to spread nodes connected to your’s house and it’s provider would be awesome! Than connect them to neighborhood’s houses (and theirs providers) to ensure free connection for everyone involved! Such a dream!

  5. Strikes me that it’s similar to what we had with AX25 packet radio 30 years ago but more restrictive as it’s not open source. Only positive is solar power which we didn’t have.

  6. I like the idea, but I think for things like this to take off they need to be made accessible to the general public IMHO – and sorting out how to do that legally and preventing abuse, could be difficult.

    That being said, I am sure one could create an end node for about £10, assuming user brings their own terminal, so if others are sorting out the back end, price shouldn’t be the biggest barrier – how to bring in a critical mass of users though?

  7. The antenna could have easily been hidden either inside the box, or inside the wall of the box. Great idea though, I could see hanging these off utility poles in my neighborhood and they would not likely be disturbed

    1. Geocaches are frequently hidden in birdhouses, the opening is not drilled all the way through or a blocking plate is screwed I over the opening. Gadget caches often contain microcontrollersthat need to be kept dry and protected. The basic birdhouse design can fit a variety of interesting tech. How well does solar work further North during the winter months?

  8. Imagine the local tinfoil hat seeing birdhouses with antennas and solar panels…

    There will be birhouses shot down with the 12 gauge in a week.

    I had a local “lady” accusing me of being a spy after I put up a Yagi on my house.
    I told her it was a TV antenna, but she came back when she saw me rotating it from inside….

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