Portable, solar-powered: Researchers develop prototype mobile network

Published: September 22, 2015
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PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOTO: REUTERS

LAHORE: Pakistani researchers have developed a portable, solar-powered mobile phone network for use in disasters like floods and earthquakes when regular communications are often disrupted.

Researchers at the Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore, together with a team from the University of California, have developed a prototype Rescue Base Station (RBS) for Pakistan – country’s first emergency telecoms system that would work on normal cell phones.

“When the RBS is installed in a disaster-struck area, people automatically start receiving its signals on their mobile phones. They can manually choose it and then call, send messages and even browse (internet) data free of charge,” said ITU Vice Chancellor and an adviser to the project Umar Saif.

The RBS is a lightweight, compact rectangular box fitted with an antenna, a signal amplifier and a battery, which can be carried easily and even dropped by helicopter in hard-to-reach disaster zones. It has a solar panel to charge the battery, to keep it working in places without electric power.

An alternative communications system like this could help save lives when disasters strike by connecting survivors with rescue workers and government officials.

The RBS has yet to be deployed on the ground, but the ITU expects it to be used in the next six to eight months in partnership with the National Disaster Management Authority and a local telecoms company. Saif said the RBS signal can be received within a 3 km radius, and people in the area can easily register by sending their name, occupation, age and blood group to a special number.

Information on demand

Potential users of the RBS system can get the information they need in just a few seconds by sending a text message to specific numbers appearing on their mobile phone. For example, if a person needs to contact a fire brigade, they text the words “occupation: firefighters” to the relevant number. They will then receive names and contact details for local firefighters in just a few seconds and can call for help, Saif said.

Tech innovation

The RBS team is now working with Endaga, a U.S.-based company that connects rural communities through small-scale independent cellular networks, and a local telecoms firm to commercialise the project.

The aim of the collaboration is to help phone companies keep their communications systems functioning in a disaster until their regular networks are restored.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2015.

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