New phone system improves disaster communications

paul-gardner-stephen-webA new mobile system that substantially improves communications in disasters like the recent floods in the eastern States was unveiled today (Thursday, 27 January) by Flinders University researcher, Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen (pictured).

Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen’s Serval Project has created software that can run on ‘off-the-shelf’ mobile telephones and allow them to relay calls for one phone to another – without the presence of mobile phone towers in the immediate vicinity – before ultimately re-connecting with an operating mobile telephone tower.

The technology has broad potential in situations such as the recent and on-going flooding in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria where mobile phone towers were swamped and knocked out of action.

“During and following the flooding many mobile telephone towers in the Brisbane area were affected, however there were many other towers that were still operating more or less normally,” Dr Gardner-Stephen said today.

“Our technology allows the signal from the working towers to be relayed into areas lacking signal, allowing calls in and out of affected areas. What is amazing is that we have programmed fairly ordinary mobile telephones to perform this function, without using any specialised hardware,” he said.

Dr Gardner-Stephen is presenting and demonstrating the Serval Project technology at Linux Conference AU 2011 at the Queensland University of Technology in inner Brisbane today, just hundreds of metres from areas that were inundated during the recent flooding.

“My team and I are excited about the potential of our technology to help when a crisis strikes,” he said.

“From the outset of this project we have been committed to making our technology freely available. Any telephone carrier or handset manufacturer that wishes to incorporate our technology into their products is free to do so, and indeed we would be delighted to assist them in that process.”

The technology also has the potential to dramatically improve mobile telephone coverage in many rural and remote locations where a signal is available only from limited locations in a community or with a frustratingly weak signal.

Dr Gardner-Stephen – Flinders University’s Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow – has previously demonstrated the Serval Project’s technology to support mobile phone calls without a mobile network in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia where the nearest mobile phone tower was more than 100 kilometres away.

“Phones running our software relay calls between themselves. If even just one of those can see a cell tower, then calls can be with any of the phones, thus sustaining communications in affected areas. A balloon is not necessary; a phone running our software at any vantage point can suffice.”

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17 thoughts on “New phone system improves disaster communications

  1. New communications technology must be exploited to maximize it’s potential use during these times and I’m grateful that Flinders University made the initiative to work on this.

  2. Great news. All the telcos should now provide this and the drop-out rate will go to zero in metro areas. Also should solve the problem of cost of coverage and rollout in rural areas.

  3. This technology is very helpful to archipelagic countries such as Indonesia because it is economically unviable to build towers on islands where there are only few people.

  4. Making the technology freely available is a refreshing change in a world where those who make discoveries are often guarded and reluctant to share. Congratulations Paul – the “shoe-phone” has come a long way! 🙂

  5. You and Your team has done a such a wonderful job.Congrats sir. I am a Telecommunication trainee student in 3G and 4G wireless technology [Protocol Development].So I am very eager to know about this mobile technology. Where can i get the more details of it..?

  6. Congratulation on this accomplishment. I am from India and work with telecom industry across India, Middle East and Africa. As you may be aware that India is a disaster prone country, hence this technology can help save many lives.

    I’d like to explore a collaboration for this technology for the areas mentioned above.

    Best Regards,

    Manish Kumar

  7. If you are using ad-hoc handsets as repeaters what is the impact on battery life? If a handset is relaying a call and re-transmitting does the user have any control over the power profile. If you have a very busy network your phone could be dead in a matter of hours and you havnt made a single call yourself. Where can I read more about trials & testing ???

  8. Perhaps there could be a financial incentive to allow one’s handset to be used as a relay. I too thought this would be great for under-served areas, since I live in one (rural Vermont, USA). But, I suspect we are too far from each other here for this to work more than a tiny fraction of the time. It makes more sense for the metro-area disaster scenario where – presumably – there is still a high density of handsets even if a few towers are out of service.

  9. This is a great accomplishment and I can think of many uses for this solution, especially in humanitarian emergency situations. I just have 2 comments: the first is regarding call concurrency, in other words, how many concurrent calls you can have using this mesh topology. The other is, if the mobile phone tower is totally missing, no signal whatsoever, can you still use the mobile phones in an ad-hoc environment and call each other? That would be nice to see.

  10. Very interesting. It is like creating a relay chain of picocells that would keep handing the call over until a mobile tower is reached. Ideal in times of disaster, like the recent earthquake in Christchurch NZ. Often the biggest problem in these situation is a lack of two way communication with affected areas.

    I would be concerned about the additional power demands that transmitting would require of a mobile phone given that charging points are also out of action in times of disaster.

  11. I was skeptical at first about this project because of issues like limited range and power. However, on further reflection there are many circumstances in which these phones can be useful for people who live or work closely with one another.

    The website says “Download the Serval Application for your Android phone soon” — hope it’s true!

  12. Ok, a little late forcommenting, but I just came across while researching mobile networks. I won’t bore you with that, but have there been any more developments on this story?

    May I just say, why aren’t there more Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen working for Australian telcos?

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