For years, amateur radio operators around the world ( Amateur Radio Emergency Services and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service in the US) have provided voice and data communications when normal channels were nonexistent or ineffective due to some kind of man-made or natural disaster. As a former volunteer firefighter and EMT, I have witnessed experienced hams (which is slang for amateur radio operators) turn an untenable situation into a successful rescue.

However, for the most part that only covers emergency-response operations. What about the general public–people who are anxious to find out if family members and loved ones are safe and out of harm’s way? A point that Professor Matthias Hollick, whose field of study is securing mobile networks, speaks to in this Technische Universitat Darmstadt press release by Boris Hänßler:

“Despite our increasing dependence on infrastructure-based networks, no back up plan exists. Civil protection and disaster assistance has even seen budget cuts in recent years. The authorities and armed forces are able to operate their communications networks for a considerable time, even in the absence of an external power supply. In contrast, the civilian population would be mostly disconnected from any means of communications.”

SEE: Cyberweapons are now in play: From US sabotage of a North Korean missile test to hacked emergency sirens in Dallas (free PDF) (TechRepublic)


Wanting to fill that important void in emergency communications, Hollick and his colleagues created Networked Infrastructureless Cooperation for Emergency Response (NICER), an interdisciplinary research center at TU Darmstadt. The team consists of 11 professors, three post-doctoral researchers, 16 research associates, and six associate staff members; it’s a joint project involving the Universities of Kassel and Marburg. That kind of talent shows the seriousness of the group, as does the recent influx of 4.5 million Euro in funding.

On the NICER website, the scientists state the group’s goal is to facilitate cooperation between the people directly affected by a large-scale crisis event, the rescue workers, and technical rescue and relief systems, such as rescue robots. To achieve their goal, the people at NICER intend to extend and automate the successful processes developed over the years by amateur radio operators. To start, they suggest creating:

  • Autonomous communication islands;
  • Network bridges between the communication islands; and
  • Services and applications to enable cooperation in crisis situations.

Communication islands

Communication islands are physical areas within which every mobile device is able to directly connect with every other mobile device. That’s significant compared to what currently exists, where all cellular traffic is channeled through intermediary command and control infrastructure.

Instigating that change sounds simple, but, in fact, it’s difficult. “Mobile devices can only communicate directly over short distances and therefore depend on other devices that act as forwarding and distribution nodes,” writes Hänßler. “Data traffic management is particularly challenging following this loss in coordination capabilities.”

To organize voice and data traffic, the research team suggests prioritizing specific types of data and allowing mobile devices to exchange status information. To that end, Hollick and the team came up with a low-latency forwarding mechanism. “The signal [containing status information] emitted from a given device is picked up and broadcast simultaneously by all devices in the immediate vicinity [communications island],” explains Hänßler. “The message propagation can be compared with the ring waves formed when throwing a stone into a pond. The collaboration of the involved devices needs to be precise enough for the emitted signals to overlap constructively.”

SEE: Automated Mobile Application Security Assessment with Mobile Security Framework (TechRepublic Academy)

Network bridges

The next task is to figure out how to establish communications between the individual islands. One example of a bridge would be a mobile device carried by a resident traveling from one communication island to another. Hänßler writes, “It [mobile device] would store information destined for recipients in the other island and physically carry it there, thus enabling the exchange of information over longer distances.”

Special services and applications

Besides being able to communicate during an emergency, the researchers are developing ways to provide citizens with situational updates or information about relief resources–applications that must survive infrastructure outages and individual mobile device failure.

SEE: Severe weather and emergency policy (Tech Pro Research)

Changes to firmware and hardware are needed

Current mobile-device technology, according to the people at NICER needs to be re-engineered–in particular, the software empowering the processors of the radio module. The press release explains:

“Under standard operating conditions, the firmware forwards incoming data packets either to the operating system or application software. After processing, they are dispatched to the intended recipient again via the firmware and radio module.”

The research team wants to move communications management from the main processor’s firmware on the mobile device to firmware used by the radio-module processor. “Simple data packets could be processed in fractions of milliseconds, whereas using the operating system would take orders of magnitude longer,” adds Hollick. “That’s a significant gain if we are operating hundreds of devices.” Moving that processing to the radio module also saves power–important during power outages, which are likely in disasters.

The kicker is that in order to utilize mobile devices this way, mobile-device manufacturers would have to uniformly incorporate what the researchers call a standardized emergency operating mode that would initiate during crisis situations.

SEE: Free ebook–Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (TechRepublic)

The NICER researchers are hopeful

Hollick concludes: “We’re hoping that solutions based on the NICER research will soon be available to everybody. This facilitates that the affected population has the means to help themselves under catastrophic circumstances literally in its hands–namely by making use of the mobile devices they own already.”

Note: I would like to thank the hams around the globe who time and time again selflessly and quietly aid emergency responders. 73s from KOPBX.