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.

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You’ll Really Want An “Undo” Button When You Accidentally Send A Ballistic Missile Warning

Hawaiians started their weekend with quite a fright, waking up Saturday morning to a ballistic missile alert that turned out to be a false alarm. In between the public anger, profuse apologies from officials, and geopolitical commentary, it might be hard to find some information for the more technical-minded. For this audience, The Atlantic has compiled a brief history of infrastructure behind emergency alerts.

As a system intended to announce life-critical information when seconds count, all information on the system is prepared ahead of time for immediate delivery. As a large hodgepodge linking together multiple government IT systems, there’s no surprise it is unwieldy to use. These two aspects collided Saturday morning: there was no prepared “Sorry, false alarm” retraction message so one had to be built from scratch using specialized equipment, uploaded across systems, and broadcast 38 minutes after the initial false alarm. In the context of government bureaucracy, that was really fast and must have required hacking through red tape behind the scenes.

However, a single person’s mistake causing such chaos and requiring that much time to correct is unacceptable. This episode has already prompted a lot of questions whose answers will hopefully improve the alert system for everyone’s benefit. At the very least, a retraction is now part of the list of prepared messages. But we’ve also attracted attention of malicious hackers to this system with obvious problems in design, in implementation, and also has access to emergency broadcast channels. The system needs to be fixed before any more chaotic false alarms – either accidental or malicious – erode its credibility.

We’ve covered both the cold-war era CONELRAD and the more recent Emergency Broadcast System. We’ve also seen Dallas’ tornado siren warning system hacked. They weren’t the first, they won’t be the last.

(Image: Test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM via US Air Force.)

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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