Disaster Area Communications With Cloud Gateways

2017, in case you don’t remember, was a terrible year for the Caribbean and Gulf coast. Hurricane Maria tore Puerto Rico apart, Harvey flooded Houston, Irma destroyed the Florida Keys, and we still haven’t heard anything from Saint Martin. There is, obviously, a problem to be solved here, and that problem is communications. Amateur radio only gets you so far, but for their Hackaday Prize entry, [Inventive Prototypes] is building an emergency communication system that anyone can use. It only needs a clear view of the sky, and you can use it to send SMS messages. It’s the PR-Holonet, and it’s something that’s already desperately needed.

The basis for the PR-Holonet is built around an Iridium satellite modem. To date, satellite communication is the best way to get a message out to the world without any infrastructure. It’ll work in the middle of the Sahara, the depths of the Amazon, and conveniently anywhere that was just hit by a category five hurricane.

Along with the Iridium modem, [Inventive Prototypes] is using standard, off-the-shelf equipment to turn that connection to a satellite network into something any smartphone can use. That means pulling out a Raspberry Pi, of course. But building a project for areas that were recently ravaged by hurricanes is no easy task. The enclosure it the key here, and [Inventive Prototypes] is using some great water-resistant, dust-proof junction boxes, solar panels, and a whole bunch of batteries to keep everything humming along. It’s a great project and something that was desperately needed a year ago.

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?

Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: What’s in Your Digital Bugout Bag?”

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”