There’s an old adage that says, ‘no news is good news’. But when disaster strikes, that’s not always true. Communication is key to any relationship and effective communication skills are important for any business, leadership, team or even within interpersonal relationships. There are so many people out there telling us that communication is king and that it should be the focus of all we do. But what happens when we can’t communicate with people?
In times of disaster, telecommunications infrastructure is often damaged, destroyed, or impacted in some way, leaving emergency services with limited resources to deal with the ever-increasing nature of the disaster and impacted civilians without access to help or loved ones.
Trained personnel have the correct gear to use when emergency strikes, including ways of communicating amongst themselves, but civilians often don’t. Telecommunications infrastructure is often severely impacted during a disaster, which means that not only are the more common means of communication unavailable, impacted local communities are set to be without access during the recovery phase. Most recently, the world has been collectively mourning the loss of life, animals and natural resources as a result of the Australian bushfires. While this level of fire disaster has been unprecedented, there are fears this could become the new normal. One of the terrifying aspects of surviving this disaster, for emergency services and civilians alike, was a lack of access to regular communication channels throughout the worst of the fires. Without reliable, ongoing, easy-to-access communications in the face of danger, there is a real risk that many more lives will be lost – including the heroes on the front line.
The team at Wise Networking have come up with a solution to keep the lines of communication open during and after a disaster. Founder and tech veteran Brian Lim wants to use his background in space technology and almost 10 years of experience in the tech industry to save as many lives as possible. He founded Wise Networking, an Australian emergency response company that uses its team’s background in aerospace and space engineering to deliver communication during disasters. The team at Wise Networking has been innovating an air-deployable mobile cell network solution since December 2018. They have developed a miniature mobile phone tower that can be airdropped into a disaster area to restore mobile phone coverage quickly. It will provide communication for victims and first responders during a disaster, supporting response and recovery efforts. ‘This is technology that will make a real difference in people’s lives,’ Mr Lim said. ‘Part of its uniqueness is that it doesn’t require any working infrastructure to deliver mobile phone coverage and the people on the ground in the middle of the disaster don’t need to do a thing for it to work. It’s been designed to minimize human intervention.’
Each disaster is nuanced and when there’s fire involved, emergency teams are often working hard to protect infrastructure, which means they are required to fight away from it, leaving them without coverage. Nearly everyone who has ever been a responder in an emergency can vouch for the reliability of two-way radio. It means that if lines are down and mobile phone reception is unavailable, two-way radios can still transmit voice messages and limited data instantaneously, which is key in disasters. However, despite having a place in emergency services, there are some key limitations.
While two-way radios are able to collect data, its scope of ability is very limited. There is also the question of accessibility as disasters hit different parts of the community. ‘In a disaster, people turn to what they know. Not everyone has a two-way radio, and despite its ease of use, not everyone knows what the correct procedure is,’ Mr Lim said. ‘For both civilians and emergency responders, being able to use their mobile phones with access to coverage as they normally would in the middle of a disaster will be easy and effortless.’ The Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020 provided a clear indication that a disaster can turn on its heels without warning. And if not everyone has access, the lack of communications could have dire outcomes.
Telecommunications companies are able to provide vehicles with cell towers attached and send them to vulnerable areas, but it’s not always possible. ‘For temporary restoration, the challenge is getting multi-ton vehicles to access hilltops in difficult conditions, having a trained person stay with the vehicle while also constantly running a diesel generator to ensure it all works. It’s human labour intensive and very risky,’ Mr Lim said. ‘Essential personnel may have access to the disaster site but geographically dispersed infrastructure can be really difficult to repair, delaying coverage and potentially leaving thousands of people vulnerable.’
Wise Networking has created a solution to assist disaster-impacted areas, without the need for any technical training to implement. Their modular telecommunication infrastructure can provide mobile phone coverage (as well as a network for two-way radio and IoT sensors) when regular infrastructure is unable to. Its design allows it to be delivered to the field by hand, aircraft or spacecraft. Where human intervention is possible, there is a version of the system that can be taken into the area of need. ‘If a person can physically access the area, this delivery model is a great option. Its simple placement on emergency vehicles or in a carry backpack will allow for clearer communication between emergency teams, regardless of the messaging or communication platform, ’Mr Lim said. ‘It’s capable of providing constant local Internet for data transfer and better, consistent communication. It’ll also allow for the entire response operation to be on one platform, which means the team will avoid juggling different services.’
If physical access is unavailable, there is an option for the network to be delivered by air, which has been designed for minimal human intervention. This delivery system, called the ‘Gyrochute’, has been created to turn mobile phone towers into a small flyable package that can be dropped from the sky – or even outer space. The Gyrochute can reach anywhere on Earth within a few hours when deployed from a satellite. Requiring no human intervention upon landing, it can stay in the field facilitating communication for years. The solid frame will hold the telecommunications equipment, which will be powered by the onboard solar-power system. Like a parachute, the Gyrochute is a slow-descent vehicle. However, parachutes require significant training and maintenance to use and are costly. The Gyrochute, together with the strength of its material and ease of use, makes it a preferred alternative. It has even been designed to be released from heights greater than 1km and land softly on the ground, allowing it to survive impact on rugged or irregular terrain, including tree canopies.
‘Unfortunately, we weren’t able to utilize our designs for this last bushfire season because we’re still in R&D,’ Mr Lim said. ‘In order for us to be ready to deploy during future fire seasons, we need some funding that will allow us to develop a strong product and the resources to deliver at the scale required.’
Frontline men and women might be able to maximize their response and coordination of efforts in the pursuit of saving lives and property if they were able to collect additional vital information in real-time. Another benefit is being able to monitor the health and safety of responders in the field, allowing support teams to be deployed sooner, reducing stress and overwork. In the middle of a disaster, people don’t think, they just do. Solid, reliable telecommunications infrastructure in a disaster will give them the ability to use the technology they’re so familiar with – their mobile phone.
Wise Networking has received a lot of support from companies who endorse the importance of their work. Mr Lim is part of the Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program, a worldwide network of Cleantech and Impact Entrepreneurs who believe in the power of design to create a better world. Wise Networking has also been collaborating with Saber Astronautics, provider of space products and services to the US and Australian Defence, on major projects and new product development. Mr. Lim acknowledged that the rapid success of his company is partly due to the encouragement he’s received from multiple companies and communities. ‘When so many organisations support what I’m doing, it’s really very humbling,’ he said. ‘This has been pivotal in how quickly we’ve been able to get to the point we’re at.’
Mr. Lim created this infrastructure so everyone can work in unison. ‘The men and women who not only gave up their holidays but also put their lives at risk to fight the bushfires make me so proud to be Australian,’ he said. ‘We want to support our firefighters the best way we know how. Disaster response is complex and nuanced at the best of times and I want to help save lives. My team and I are choosing to do this so we can create deep tech for deep impact.’
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