An Off-Grid Makeshift Cell Network

When traveling into the wilderness with a group of people, it’s good to have a method of communications set up both for safety and practicality. In the past people often relied on radios like FRS, CB, or ham bands if they had licenses, but nowadays almost everyone has a built-in communications device in their pocket that’s ready to use. Rather than have all of his friends grab a CB to put in their vehicle for their adventures together, [Keegan] built an off-grid network which allows any Android phone to communicate with text even if a cell network isn’t available.

The communications system is built on the LoRa communications standard for increased range over other methods like WiFi using a SX1278 chip and an ESP8266. The hardware claims a 10 km radius using this method which is more than enough for [Keegan]’s needs. Actually connecting to the network is only half of the solution though; the devices will still need a method of communication. For that, a custom Android app was created which allows up to 8 devices to connect to the network and exchange text messages with each other similar to a group text message.

For off-grid adventures a solution like this is an elegant solution to a communications problem. It uses mostly existing hardware since everyone carries their own phones already, plus the LoRa standard means that even the ESP8266 base station and transmitter are using only a tiny bit of what is likely battery power. If you’re new to this wireless communications method, we recently featured a LoRa tutorial as well.

ISM Communications For Arduino

If you want to wirelessly communicate between devices, WiFi and Bluetooth are obvious choices. But there’s also the ISM (industrial, scientific, and medical) band that you use. There are inexpensive modules like the SX1278 that can handle this for you using LoRa modulation, but they haven’t been handy to use with an Arduino. [Jan] noticed the same thing and set out to build a shield that allowed an Arduino to communicate using LoRa. You can find the design data on GitHub. [Jan] calls it the LoRenz shield.

According to [Jan], the boards cost about $20 to $30 each to make, and most of that cost was in having PC boards shipped. LoRa lets you trade data rate for bandwidth, but typical data rates are fairly modest. As for range, that depends on a lot of factors, too, but we’ve seen ranges quoted in terms of miles.

Depending on where you live, there may be legal restrictions on how you use a radio like the SX1278. You should understand your local laws before you buy into using the ISM bands. We aren’t sure it would be wise, but the board can coexist with three other similar shields. So you could get 4 radios going on one Arduino if you had too and could manage the power, RF, and other issues involved. The breakout board the module uses has an antenna connector, so depending on your local laws, you could get a good bit of range out of one of these.

[Jan] promises a post on the library that makes it all work shortly, but you can find the code on GitHub now. If you look at the code in the examples directory, it seems pretty easy. You’d have to sling some software, but the SX1278 can support other modes in addition to LoRA including FSK and other data modulation techniques.

We’ve seen other LoRa shields, but not many. If you are interested in other wireless technologies, we’ve talked about them quite a bit. If you want a basic introduction to LoRa, [Andreas Spiess’] video below is a good place to start.

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