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Software enables mobiles to communicate during a disaster

Software developed by Flinders University’s Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen that enables mobile phones to communicate during a disaster will be freely available to the public by the end of the year thanks to the support of the Dutch NLnet Foundation.

The Serval BatPhone software can be used on compatible mobile phone handsets to create an alternative ‘network’ where conventional mobile phone coverage has been destroyed or simply does not exist.

Instead of relying on mobile phone towers, the Serval system relays calls from one mobile phone to another as either a ‘closed’ network or to connect to a temporary tower.

Gardner-Stephen, a research fellow in the Flinders School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, said NLnet’s contribution of about $40,000 (£24,000) will be a significant boost for his Serval Project team.

‘NLnet’s support will go towards project management and senior developer resources to more effectively manage the team’s co-ordinated efforts,’ he said. ‘It’s a significant step towards our goal of making Serval BatPhone freely available in a first public release later this year.’

Readers' comments (5)

  • Years ago I read someone's idea along these lines. The concept was that cell phones could "fall back" to a text-only mode if the cell sites go down. They would automatically self-assemble into an adaptive peer-to-peer network that could relay emergency text messages. (The system would be text-only due to bandwidth and power limitations.)

    I thought it was a smashing idea.

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  • I have proposed this myself to the civil aviation authorities for use when an airliner needs to transmit its position and other data continuously but is out of range of its ground control. Such a system would have made it possible - for example - much more quickly to find the flight recorders from the large jet which went down in bad weather off Brazil with loss of all hands. The response was "Eventually yes, but it will take years to get the political agreements necessary."

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  • The system described by Rob is quite similar to what I have thought could be possible in remote areas, such as the mountains in Norway, and when a storm sets in during the winter. If mobile phones could " piggy back", they could extend the coverage, by relaying messages among themselves until picked by a network antenna. Thereby contacting search and rescue about their location and well being.

    Tore Schjeldsoe

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  • Even though we are talking about relaying, how relaiable can the service be in the other relay point is out of range?

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  • If the mobile handsets can configure themselves into a network, in a similar manner to the way internet-connected kit organises itself, then it should be possible to create a self-assembly network. It might not work too well in low-density areas, where the distance between mobiles might be too great, but in urban areas, with many possible connection paths, I see no reason why this couldn't be made to work rather well.
    I'm not sure about voice calls, but SMS text messages should be easy enough.

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