An Irish-based aid agency has developed a wi-fi system for use
immediately after a natural disaster, when communications can be
near-impossible. The US Navy is testing it this week.
An Ireland-based aid agency is working with the US Navy in a
disaster simulation at Camp Roberts, Calif., this week to test a
local communications system in an effort to improve
telecommunications in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters.
When disaster strikes, whether in Indonesia, Haiti, or Japan, the
aftermath is much the same: chaotic. As the government, various
charities, and family members struggle amid downed telephone lines
to find and communicate with missing persons, communications are
notoriously slow-going and disparate.
If successful, the new system will allow NGOs, charities, other
relief organizations, as well as survivors and relatives, to share
communications. It would significantly reduce the chaos surrounding
the aftermath of a disaster, obviating the need for separate groups
to set up multiple private networks and drastically cut the time it
takes to rescue and connect disaster victims.
Disaster Tech Labs, a charitable organization founded by Ireland-
based Dutchman Evert Bopp, is behind the project. Mr. Bopp, an IT
businessman, says he got the inspiration from watching what happened
during the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami.
He says the project finally crystalized when he got involved in
the relief effort after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. After he
developed ad hoc networks on the ground in Haiti, under the name
Haiti Connect, Bopp decided to attempt to codify the setup and to
take it global.
"When I went to Haiti I thought, 'I'll do this for six months,
it's my contribution to society, and that'll be the extent of my
work.' Two and a half years later, I'm still working at it and can't
see the end," he says. "Do I want to chase big bucks I've done that
for most of my life or do I want to make a contribution to the
He made a call for donations, and by February 2010 had received
$8,600 in cash donations to cover expenses, plus $200,000 of
telecoms equipment from California-based hardware manufacturer Aruba
Bopp says the Haiti experience taught him that communications can
be easily improved in any future natural disaster simply by
recognizing what kind of devices people have and rapidly building ad
hoc networks that support them. His new plan, being tested at Camp
Roberts, is to deploy within days of a disaster.
Aruba Networks has donated a further $50,000 in equipment, he
"If the UN or Red Cross deploys to a disaster area, they bring
their own radio equipment, he says. [But] wi-fi devices are so
ubiquitous, why not built a network using it?" he says. "The only
communications still up-and-running after Hurricane Katrina was the
recently installed metropolitan wi-fi network."
Others working on the ground after catastrophes welcome the idea.
Andrew Hogg, head of media at the UK-based charity Christian Aid,
says the organization would be happy to see any improvement in
communication with the field in a natural disaster.
Christian Aid was one of the many nongovernmental organizations
that arrived on the scene of the 2010 earthquake that devastated
Haiti. Initially, communications between London and the scene were
close to nonexistent, he says.
"Telephone lines were down, and we couldn't use mobiles to make
communication. I was taking calls throughout the night from
journalists asking what Christian Aid was seeing, and for quite a
while I wasn't able to answer the question.
"We did have [satellite] phones but they have limitations.
Anything that can be thrown into the mix to offer another avenue for
communications would be extremely valuable. We need to check on the
safety of staff, obviously, but we also need to alert people to the
scale of the disaster as accurately as possible," he says. …