KiwiEx 2012 has just finished, and I am sitting in Wellington Airport with a few spare minutes to write down some thoughts about the experience.
First, it has been amazing to spend a week with the exceptionally bright and dedicated volunteers of the New Zealand Red Cross IT&T Emergency Response Unit (ERU). These people are all volunteers giving up their valuable time for training, and also for potential overseas deployment to help provide communications support for Red Cross activities anywhere in the world. This IT&T ERU is one of only five in the world, and the only one outside of Europe and the USA, which shows the calibre of the group.
To provide some context, the ERU is the team that deploys HF and VHF radio systems and satellite-backed internet access for other Red Cross teams. Thus, they are frequently working in areas with no available terrestrial communications infrastructure.
|Setting up the HF and VHF Radio Mast For the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC)|
The primary function of KiwiEx was to provide a simulated deployment exercise to aid team readiness for potential deployment.
Along side this, the secondary goal of the exercise was to test various new technologies to see if they would be helpful for the ERU, and possibly for other users within the New Zealand Red Cross and other Red Cross national societies.
The Serval Mesh was one of these new technologies being test-run at KiwiEx, with a focus on Serval Rhizome store-and-forward and the Serval MeshMS infrastructure-independent short message service, which is similar to SMS on cellular networks.
|Charging Phones Ready For Roll-Out|
This combination can also provide real-time tracking of people on the ground via the GPS receiver in the inReach unit. Keeping track of their personnel is very important for the Red Cross, not only to maximise their effectiveness, but also to keep their people safe.
The intention was to test if these various technologies (and combinations of them) were actually practical. In this regard, the tests were very successful: about 50 succinct data reports and a number of Serval MeshMS messages were pushed via inReach back to Kestrel's internet portal; more than 11,000 tracking points were obtained from more than a dozen phones allowing the reconstruction of team movements during the week; and more than 86MB of data was pushed around the mesh using Rhizome.
|The ERU Team Familarise Themselves With The Serval Mesh Phones|
|The KiwiEx Amenities Block|
|Serval Mesh Phone and inReach on Dash-Board Relaying Data via Iridium Satellite and Serval Rhizome|
|Sending a Message via Satellite In The Field|
|Boiling the billy, Kiwi style, in a Thermette.|
Similarly, when at the end of the exercise I wanted to collect all the photographs that various people had taken during the exercise and shared to the mesh, all I had to do was find any mesh phone, and copy the pictures, because they all had a copy of all of the photographs.
The early feedback from the ERU team has been very encouraging, and they have made many valuable suggestions to enable us to improve our software. Above all, their enthusiasm for what Serval will be able to do for them in the near future was a wonderful vindication of our approach of assuming no infrastructure, but using whatever infrastructure is available.