IRC Over LoRa, For When Things Really Go South

As a society, we’ve become accustomed to always-on high-speed data connections, whether we’re at home on the computer or out and about with a mobile device. But what happens if a natural disaster knocks out the local infrastructure? Sure some people will be able to fire up their radio if they need to reach out and touch someone, but even among hackers, hams are a minority. What we really need is a backup Internet.

The team behind the CellSol project hopes to show that building a volunteer-operated distributed communications network is not only within the capabilities of the hacker community but probably much easier and cheaper to do than you might think. Each node in the network, known as a Pylon in CellSol parlance, can shuttle data between the LoRa backbone and WiFi-enabled devices like smartphones and computers. Once the network is up and running, users don’t need any special hardware or software to use it.

Now to be clear, nobody is talking about surfing the web here. When a user connects to one of the ESP32 Pylons, they’ll be able to access a simplistic chat system through their browser. If the Pylon has an active Internet connection the chat can be bridged to an IRC channel. Without Internet connectivity, the pylon will simply give users on the CellSol network a means to communicate among each other. To keep things simple there’s no user names, private messages, or encryption. This is bare-bones, end-of-the-world style communication.

Want to join the CellSol revolution? All you really need is an ESP32, a LoRa radio, and the open-source firmware. If you get something like the Heltec LoRa 32 development board, you don’t even need to solder anything together. Just flash the board and go. Once you have a few Pylons going, you can also put together a cheap repeater node using a LoRa equipped Arduino. Both devices are small and energy efficient enough that they could easily be battery or solar powered. As you can see in the video after the break, the team even envisions a future where they could be dropped off in public areas via drone.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the ESP32 used to establish an off-grid LoRa communications network, and like those previous attempts, it’s usefulness will largely depend on how many people you can convince to set up their own nodes and repeaters. But if you’ve got some open minded friends who live relatively close by, this could be a great way to have a little chat.

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The Hackers And The Hurricane

When natural disasters strike, particularly if they are in some of the less remote parts of the world, we see them unfolding in real-time on our television screens. They become a 24-hour rolling news exercise in disaster titillation, each fresh horror ghoulishly picked over by breathless reporters live-telecasting from windswept streets, and endlessly rehashed by a succession of in-studio expert guests.

Then once the required image of a dusty child being pulled from the rubble or a tearful mother describing her daughter being swept away is in the can, a politician somewhere is found in bed with a model or a tinpot dictator rattles his sabre, and the world moves on. The BAFTA or the Emmy is a certainty for this one, did you see the anguish!

Meanwhile on the ground, the situation remains the same. There is no power, no sanitation, no communications, no food, and help seems very far away. In the wake of the recent hurricane season across the Caribbean, there are millions of people whose worlds have been wrecked, and several international governments have faced significant criticism for their lethargic response.

In our world of hardware hackers and makers, we are on the whole practical people. We exist to make, and do, rather than to endlessly talk. Seeing the plight of the victims of Irma, Jose, or Maria leaves us wanting to do practical things to help, because that’s what we do. But of course, we can do nothing, because we’re thousands of miles away and probably lack whatever skills or training are in demand on the islands.

It’s heartening then to hear of just a few moments when our wider community has managed to be in the right place at the right time to offer some help. We’ve had a couple in our tips line lately we’d like to share.

[Csp3r] writes about the Derbycon conference held in Louisville, at which [Carlos Perez] and [Jose Quinones Borreros], information security specialists from Puerto Rico, were in attendance. They mentioned a need for emergency radios, and the community at the conference came together to raise money for much more than just a few radios. $15,000 was raised in all, spent on radios, solar chargers, generators, flashlights, USB battery packs, and tools. This amounted to a significant bulk, so Hackers For Charity helped secure some space on an aid flight to the island.

Then [Bruce Perens, K6BP] writes about a request from the American Red Cross to the ARRL for 50 radio amateurs to help with their relief efforts in Puerto Rico. They will perform the role you might expect of enabling essential communications, as well as to quote the ARRL: “help record, enter, and submit disaster-survivor information into the ARC Safe and Well system”. This is a request unprecedented in its scale, and reflects the level of damage across the island.

For most of us, the best we can do when helping out with these events will be to drop coins into an OXFAM or Red Cross collecting tin and leave it to the experts. But as we’ve noted above, for just a few of us the opportunity to do something a bit more useful presents itself. If you find yourself in that position, make it count!

We’ve looked at the role of amateur radio in public service before, and we’ve even featured it in one or two projects. This emergency box for example has all you’d need to provide this type of service.

Cyclone Catarina image from the ISS, [Public domain].