A solar-powered portable mobile phone network that can be used if standard communication channels are down due to natural disasters has been developed by Pakistani researchers.
Called the Rescue Base Station (RBS) for Pakistan, the system, developed by a team from the Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore in cooperation with the University of California, is the first of its kind supporting standard mobile phones.
"When the RBS is installed in a disaster-hit area, people automatically start receiving its signals on their mobile phones,” said Umar Saif, ITU vice chancellor and an adviser to the project. “They can manually choose it and then call, send messages and even browse (Internet) data free of charge."
The network is powered by a compact antenna fitted into a lightweight box equipped with a signal amplifier, battery and a solar panel. The whole system could be either carried by rescue workers or even dropped from a helicopter to re-establish communication channels in disaster-stricken areas.
According to Saif, people within three kilometres from the station would be able to receive the signal. All they would need to do is to register into the network by sending their name, occupation, age and blood group to a dedicated phone number.
"This helps generate an automatic database of people in distress, and eventually helps both the rescue and relief teams and the victims," said Saif.
The network has not yet been tested in a real-life scenario but the ITU hopes to run first experiments within the next six to eight months.
The network could save lives in disaster situations by enabling survivors to connect with rescue workers and the government authorities.
Users would be able to 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,” said Saif. “They will then receive names and contact details for local firefighters in just a few seconds and can call for help.”
Funded through the Google Faculty Research Award, the RBS network is based on open source software and cost about $6,000 to develop.
The researchers envision the technology would be procured by mobile phone network operators to bridge outages in their coverage in disaster situations before their normal services could be restored.