Let's see... we've covered open source ad hoc communications networks, disaster/relief "in a box" networks, and easy to deploy combination data and voice networks... seems to me that we need something that does all three.
WIDENS (WIreless DEployable Network System) is a system developed by the "Information Society Technologies" group of the European Commission, intended to provide rapid set-up voice and data communication for disaster response, using ad hoc networking technologies.
There is a clear need for such a system, remarks Dr Vania Conan, project coordinator for WIDENS. In emergency and disaster relief applications, there is a demand for using video-images and cameras to help monitor the operations for instance, infrared cameras mounted on the helmets of firefighters. Although more of an extreme case, rapid deployment of a communications infrastructure after a large scale earthquake or flood for example is not possible with present technology, he says.
He noted that emergency crews currently use cellular-based digital communications that require a backbone network and provide limited throughput over long distances. The WIDENS network, by contrast, is composed of terminodes versatile software-defined radio communication nodes with mixed enhanced handset terminal and IP Router features for greater throughput.
WIDENS complements existing systems with high bandwidth (2Mbit/s) over a dedicated emergency area of a few square kilometres, he explains. Higher throughput means the possibility to exchange large amounts of sensor data such as images for telemedicine applications, or to use video-surveillance. WIDENS is also straightforward to deploy in the field as there is no need to install any specific equipment such as aerials. The network sets up automatically.
Versatility is one of the primary strengths of the WIDENS system. For instance, the network can be used as a standalone system to provide communications in remote regions while being connected to backbone network and/or command and control centres via satellite or airborne platforms. WIDENS is also designed to serve as a healing overlay network for areas where there is a lack of network capacity to support emergency-related traffic or in areas where the communication infrastructure has been destroyed.
Put simply, WIDENS uses software-defined radio to set up relatively high-bandwidth connections between various remote terminals, including mobile devices, within a given area. This allows first responders to communicate with each other, including sending video and sensor data. Moreover, as an "ad hoc" network, there's no single device required as a central router; instead, nearly any device on the network can route packets of data from one unit to another. This gives the system a greater resistance to outages -- a packet can follow any possible path to get from a device to its target, even if that means looping through dozens of other devices. Transmission rates may be slower than with WiFi and other routed wireless networks, but the system is far more robust.
The main advantage of something like this is that it's very easy to set up and go, adding new units and devices as they arrive, making it perfect for rapid disaster relief efforts. Since it uses regular Internet protocol packets, the information and communication can also easily be routed out to external networks using something like the Net.Relief.Kit.
Initial tests of the WIDENS system have been completed, and the developers are now working on fixing the problems that have been found, and improving overall performance. The WIDENS code is intended to be open source, and will soon be found at the Open Air Interface website.
Sounds amazingly useful for disaster situations, but I'm also wondering . . . what ELSE could this be used for?
If there is a commercial or recreational application, the units might end up costing less.
I wonder how feasible it would be to put WIDENS nodes on tethered ballooons.
How high can a tethered balloon fly w/o being a hazard to navigation?
How developed are those high-flying solar-powered aeriel drones we keep reading about? A couple of these, carrying transponders, could link the WIDENS networks in a disaster-struck area with working telephone and internet infrastructure in an unaffected area.
I like your challenge: What else could it be used for? Lets think. What other situations have need for a rapidly-deployed, perhaps temporary, local communications network? The Olympics? Military operations (they probably already have their own though...)? Archaelogical digs? What else?
Tropos networks (I linked to it for just this comment) is a commercial provider of similar technology. I went to school with the founders and have myself done a little contract work for them years ago and think it's a great product. The key problem in computers has been interface for quite some tme now. In my mind, Tropos as well as this new open source initiative are addressing just this problem in a domain-specific way.