11:02am Thursday 20 February 2020

New phone system improves disaster communications


Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen’s Serval Project has created software that can run on ‘off-the-shelf’ mobile telephones and allow them to relay calls for one phone to another – without the presence of mobile phone towers in the immediate vicinity – before ultimately re-connecting with an operating mobile telephone tower.

The technology has broad potential in situations such as the recent and on-going flooding in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria where mobile phone towers were swamped and knocked out of action.

“During and following the flooding many mobile telephone towers in the Brisbane area were affected, however there were many other towers that were still operating more or less normally,” Dr Gardner-Stephen said today.

“Our technology allows the signal from the working towers to be relayed into areas lacking signal, allowing calls in and out of affected areas. What is amazing is that we have programmed fairly ordinary mobile telephones to perform this function, without using any specialised hardware,” he said.

Dr Gardner-Stephen is presenting and demonstrating the Serval Project technology at Linux Conference AU 2011 at the Queensland University of Technology in inner Brisbane today, just hundreds of metres from areas that were inundated during the recent flooding.

“My team and I are excited about the potential of our technology to help when a crisis strikes,” he said.

“From the outset of this project we have been committed to making our technology freely available. Any telephone carrier or handset manufacturer that wishes to incorporate our technology into their products is free to do so, and indeed we would be delighted to assist them in that process.”

The technology also has the potential to dramatically improve mobile telephone coverage in many rural and remote locations where a signal is available only from limited locations in a community or with a frustratingly weak signal.

Dr Gardner-Stephen – Flinders University’s Rural, Remote & Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow – has previously demonstrated the Serval Project’s technology to support mobile phone calls without a mobile network in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia where the nearest mobile phone tower was more than 100 kilometres away.

“Phones running our software relay calls between themselves. If even just one of those can see a cell tower, then calls can be with any of the phones, thus sustaining communications in affected areas. A balloon is not necessary; a phone running our software at any vantage point can suffice.”

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