Ask Hackaday: What’s in Your Digital Bugout Bag?

Your eyes pop open in the middle of the night, darting around the darkened bedroom as you wonder why you woke up. Had you heard something? Or was that a dream? The matter is settled with loud pounding on the front door. Heart racing as you see blue and red lights playing through the window, you open the door to see a grim-faced police officer standing there. “There’s been a hazardous materials accident on the highway,” he intones. “We need to completely evacuate this neighborhood. Gather what you need and be ready to leave in 15 minutes.”

Most people will live their entire lives without a scenario like this playing out, but such things happen all the time. Whether the disaster du jour is man-made or natural, the potential to need to leave in a big hurry is very real, and it pays to equip yourself to survive such an ordeal. The primary tool for this is the so-called “bugout bag,” a small backpack for each family member that contains the essentials — clothing, food, medications — to survive for 72 hours away from home.

A bugout bag can turn a forced evacuation from a personal emergency into a minor inconvenience, as those at greatest risk well know — looking at you, Tornado Alley. But in our connected world, perhaps it pays to consider updating the bugout bag to include the essentials of our online lives, those cyber-needs that we’d be hard-pressed to live without for very long. What would a digital bugout bag look like?

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The Hard-Learned Lessons of the Columbia Disaster

On February 1st, 2003 at eighteen seconds past 9:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during atmospheric entry over Texas. Still traveling at approximately Mach 18.3, the disintegration of Columbia was complete and nearly instantaneous. According to the official accident investigation, the crew had at most one minute from realizing they were in a desperate situation to complete destruction of the spacecraft. Due to the design of the Space Shuttle, no contingency plan or emergency procedure could have saved the crew at this point in the mission: all seven crew members were lost in this tragedy.

While the Space Shuttle, officially known as the Space Transportation System (STS) would fly again after the Columbia disaster, even the program’s most ardent supporters had to admit fundamental design of the Shuttle was flawed. Steps needed to be taken to ensure no future astronauts would be lost, and ultimately, the decision was made to retire the Shuttle fleet after primary construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was complete. There was simply too much invested in the ISS at this point to cancel the only spacecraft capable of helping to assemble it, so the STS had to continue despite the crushing loss of human life it had already incurred.

Between the loss of Challenger and Columbia, the STS program claimed fourteen lives in its thirty year run. Having only flown 135 missions in that time, the STS is far and away the most deadly spacecraft to ever fly. A grim record that, with any luck, is never to be broken.

The real tragedy was, like Challenger, the loss of Columbia could have been prevented. Ground Control knew that the Shuttle had sustained damage during launch, but no procedures were in place to investigate or repair damage to the spacecraft while in orbit. Changes to the standard Shuttle mission profile gave future crews a chance of survival that the men and women aboard Columbia never had.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Modular, Rapid Deployment Power Station

After a disaster hits, one obvious concern is getting everyone’s power restored. Even if the power plants are operational after something like a hurricane or earthquake, often the power lines that deliver that energy are destroyed. While the power company works to rebuild their infrastructure, [David Ngheim]’s mobile, rapid deployment power station can help get people back on their feet quickly. As a bonus, it uses renewable energy sources for power generation.

The modular power station was already tested at Burning Man, providing power to around 100 people. Using sets of 250 Watt panels, wind turbines, and scalable battery banks, the units all snap together like Lego and can fit inside a standard container truck or even the back of a pickup for smaller sizes. The whole thing is plug-and-play and outputs AC thanks to inverters that also ship with the units.

With all of the natural disasters we’ve seen lately, from Texas to Puerto Rico to California, this entry into the Hackaday Prize will surely gain some traction as many areas struggle to rebuild their homes and communities. With this tool under a government’s belt, restoration of power at least can be greatly simplified and hastened.

A Ham Radio Go-Box Packed with Functionality

“When all else fails, there’s ham radio.” With Hurricane Harvey just wrapping up, and Irma queued up to clobber Florida this weekend, hams are gearing up to pitch in with disaster communications for areas that won’t have any communications infrastructure left. And the perfect thing for the ham on the go is this ham shack in a box.

Go-boxes, as they are known, have been a staple of amateur radio field operations for as long as there have been hams. The go-box that [Fuzz (KC3JGB)] came up with is absolutely packed with goodies that would make it a perfect EmComm platform. The video tour below is all we have to go on, but we can see a tri-band transceiver, an RTL-SDR dongle and a Raspberry Pi with a TFT screen for tracking satellites. The Pi and SDR might also be part of a NOAA satellite receiver like the one [Fuzz] describes in a separate video; such a setup would be very valuable in natural disaster responses. Everything is powered by a 12-volt battery which can be charged from a small solar panel.

[Fuzz] is ready for action, and while we genuinely hope he and other hams won’t be needed in Florida, it doesn’t seem likely at this point. You can read more about the public service face of ham radio, or about an even more capable go-box.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Disaster Recovery WiFi

The Meshpoint project originated in Croatia during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, when [Valent Turkovic] and other volunteers noticed that first responders, including NGOs like Greenpeace and the Red Cross, often struggled to set up communications in the field. They came to the conclusion that they couldn’t rely on the normal communications infrastructure because it was either damaged or overloaded.

The solution is a net of open source, autonomous WiFi mesh routers, scalable from a single team to serving thousands of people. Responders who won’t have time for a difficult login process, should find setup as easy as signing in to a social media site.

The physical nodes would consist of a router robust for up to 150 connections, all run by an ESP8266 and protected by a weatherproof enclosure. They would feature 6-8 hour battery lives with recharging via solar/wind, AC from wall current or generators, or simply DC car batteries.

You can learn more about the project or download their code from GitHub.

Ask Hackaday MRRF Edition: 3D Printers Can Catch Fire

[Jay] out of the River City Labs Hackerspace in Peoria, IL cleared out a jam in his printer. It’s an operation most of us who own a 3D printer have performed. He reassembled the nozzle, and in a moment forgot to tighten down the grub nut that holds the heater cartridge in place. He started a print, saw the first layer go down right, and left the house at 8:30 for work. When he came back from work at 10:30 he didn’t see the print he expected, but was instead greeted by acrid smoke and a burnt out printer.

The approximate start time of the fire can be guessed by the height of the print before failure.
The approximate start time of the fire can be guessed by the height of the print before failure.

As far as he can figure, some time at around the thirty minute mark the heater cartridge vibrated out of the block. The printer saw a drop in temperature and increased the power to the cartridge. Since the cartridge was now hanging in air and the thermistor that reads the temperature was still attached to the block, the printer kept sending power. Eventually the cartridge, without a place to dump the energy being fed to it, burst into flame. This resulted in the carnage pictured. Luckily the Zortrax is a solidly built full metal printer, so there wasn’t much fuel for the fire, but the damage is total and the fire could easily have spread.

Which brings us to the topics of discussion.

How much can we trust our own work? We all have our home-builds and once you’ve put a lot of work into a printer you want to see it print a lot of things. I regularly leave the house with a print running and have a few other home projects going 24/7. Am I being arrogant? Should I treat my home work with a lesser degree of trust than something built by a larger organization? Or is the chance about the same? Continue reading “Ask Hackaday MRRF Edition: 3D Printers Can Catch Fire”

Why Should You Get a Ham Radio License?

Several of the authors you read on Hackaday are ham radio operators and we’ve often kicked around having a Hacker Chat about “Why be a ham today?” After all, you can talk to anyone in the world over the Internet or via phone, right? What’s the draw?

The Radio Society of Great Britain had the same thought, apparently, and produced a great video to answer the question. They mention the usual things: learning about technology, learning about people in other parts of the world, disaster communications, and radiosport (which seems to be more popular outside the United States; people compete to find hidden transmitters).

In addition, they talked a lot about how hams get involved with space communications, ranging from talking via satellites, to talking to people on the space station, to actually building small satellites. As the narrator says, there are “hundreds of ways to have techie fun” with ham radio.

One thing we noticed they showed but didn’t say a lot about, though, is the educational opportunities. You can learn a lot, and working with kids to help them learn is often very rewarding (and you usually learn something, too). Just to forestall the comments that this post isn’t hack related, we’ll note two things: there is a Raspberry Pi shown and just past the two-minute mark, there is a very clever hacked together Morse code key.

We talk a lot about ham radio, ranging from Arduino-based digital modes to putting together portable stations (you can see a similar one in the video, too). One other thing we noticed they don’t mention: it is generally much easier to get a license today than ever before. Most countries (including the United States) have abolished the Morse code requirements, so while some hams still enjoy CW (hamspeak for operating Morse code), it isn’t a requirement.

Video below.

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