Thursday, January 9, 2020

It's 2020 and Australia is burning

It almost doesn't need saying, but Australia is burning.  Lives have been lost. Houses destroyed. Livestock, farms and livelihood all gone up in smoke, quite literally.  I can't even imagine the pain and distress that this is all causing for so many. But what I can do, is try to do something about the technology gaps that are making a bad situation even worse for those affected.

As readers of this blog will know, I have been devevloping resilient telecommunications solutions for the last decade or so.  The best known of those is the Serval Project, which is a combination of software for smart phones that can form mesh networks, and small low-cost communications repeaters that we call Serval Mesh Extenders. Here is a brief introduction to what, and why, we are making the Serval Mesh:

 And to go right back in history to almost the beginning, here is the original motivation of the project:

And for another blast from the past, here is the original field test call from back in 2010, at Arkaroola in the Outback, which was also covered by the ABC:

Here's another video about the Mesh Extenders that we made back in 2013, when we were first developing them:

Since then, we now have much more mature hardware, and have tested the hardware for long-term operation in the field in a coastal area of Vanuatu, in large part thanks to a grant from DFAT under the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge a few years ago.

While the Serval Mesh was originally developed with disaster situations abroad, it was always also made with more local situations in mind, for example, following cyclones or in very remote areas lacking phone coverage.  For example, one variant of the technology that was worked on for a while, was the concept of an emergency network that uses vehicles as the main component, because they are the most ubiquitous infrastructure once you get out of the big cities.  Here is a piece that we produced with Toyota on this concept:

That video is also a good general introduction to the potential for the technology.

Basically any situation where cellular or other normal communications infrastructure is missing, damaged or disabled for any reason, the Serval Mesh lets local communities form their own local-area digital communications network.

There are also some branches to this work, for example, creating mobile phones that include the Mesh Extender functionality internally, and are designed to be fully "self-sovereign," that is independent of all power, communications and other infrastructure -- and that can offer security and privacy at least as good as the present state of the art.

So where are we at now?

Basically we have proven all the various parts of the technology that we need to make this a reality. What we need to do now, and our plan for 2020 -- and even before the first started -- is to focus time and energy on shaking down the last wrinkles in the system, so that it is ready for deployment by communities in the field. 

This includes revising the Mesh Extender circuit board, and fixing some known problems in the software, and then testing with larger networks of dozens to hundreds of units, that would more accurately reflect the real use of the Serval Mesh by communities in the field.

Flinders University has kindly granted me a "sabbatical" year to focus on this.  I'll be based at Arkaroola to do this, where we did the original field testing, so that we can use the vast rugged landscape there, including over 600 square kilometres of mountainous desert, to be able to deploy realistic test scenarios, and work on this scaling.

Our goal, is that the Serval Mesh can be ready for individuals and communities who want to use it, to do so, by the end of this year. 

Achieving this will depend on a lot of factors, including the ever present problem of having sufficient funds for the equipment that would allow us to work more quickly, and scale up our tests more meaningfully.  It also doesn't answer the question of how we support communities in their use of the technology once it is finished, or who will offer it for sale.  But those are issues that we can think further through during the coming year.

But one thing is crystal clear to me:  We each need to consider what we can do to mitigate the effects of the fires, and to adapt to a future where such events are more and more likely, and to do what we can to mitigate this threat. Whether we can see the whole solution or not, is to me secondary: We must simply make sure that we do what we can now.  And that is what I am going to do with 2020.