DMI efforts bring wireless radio technology to Nepal, aid in earthquake emergency communications-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

DMI efforts bring wireless radio technology to Nepal, aid in earthquake emergency communications-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

DMI efforts bring wireless radio technology to Nepal, aid in earthquake emergency communications

Dr. Sanjeeb Panday assembles a repeater antenna before a 7.3 aftershock
Dr. Sanjeeb Panday assembles a repeater antenna before a 7.3 aftershock

In May of 2015 not far outside the city of Kathmandu, Nepal, Dr. Sanjeeb Panday and a team from the University of Tribhuvan construct a repeater, a large antenna-like device used for amateur radio emergency communications. In the wake of the first earthquake, the repeater will enable communication between villages when all other infrastructure has failed. But as Dr. Panday and his team are hard at work, the extremely destructive 7.3 aftershock of the earthquake hits. The team must evacuate to save their lives. As soon as it is safe to return the team completes its task; they are the only team during the earthquake to successfully build infrastructure for the public to use.

While constructing the repeater was not an easy feat, getting the repeater into the region took even longer. With the help of the Disaster Management Initiative (DMI), located at Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley Campus, Nepal was able to use amateur, or ham, radio technology during the April earthquake.

Dr. Martin Griss, Director of the DMI, founded the center in 2009 with an annual workshop and meetings almost every week that brought together citizens, professionals, and experts to discuss technological solutions to all kinds of natural disasters. They discussed topics such as mobility, radio, open sourcing, and low-cost technologies that could change the face of disaster relief.

In 2010, Suresh Ojha, who serves on the board of the Global Nepali Professional Network (GNPN, also known as CAN-USA), joined the DMI. Ojha, who also had personal ties to Nepal, explained the challenges Nepal faces in terms of disasters. Not only is it a poor nation, dealing with the aftermath of a civil war, hunger, and other issues, but the region is also very vulnerable to earthquakes.

“An earthquake is expected in Kathmandu every 75 years,” said Ojha. “We expected it, but didn’t know when it would happen. The DMI saw the important role that disaster communications could play.”

The idea for Nepal was to model the amateur radio system (often called ham radio) that exists in the United States—radios that connect through a system of repeaters. Each radio can only communicate so far, so the repeater, which is a large structure placed on mountaintops or buildings, takes in the communication on one frequency and sends out the message on another frequency. The message is able to travel over great distances from repeater to repeater, traveling across the country or even across the world.

“In the beginning there was only amateur radio,” said Martin Griss. “As experience was gained and new technology was developed it then became commercialized. But ham radio has existed for well over one hundred years and is independent of commercial communications.”

Ham radio plays a very important role in emergency communications for a number of reasons— the first being that when all other communications and infrastructure fail, widely-available amateur radio still works. There are over 150,000 ham radio operators in the USA.

Many of the villages in Nepal lie in valleys. So a network of repeaters placed on mountaintops could allow villages to communicate with each other and identify locations of greatest need and easiest access.

The DMI helped GNPN make contact with donors, the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, and other organizations, as well as become involved with Pacific Endeavor, a multi-military coordination effort that runs exercises for humanitarian aid disaster response purposes.

“Even more than providing a model, the DMI was key in helping us make the connections and in developing the relationships necessary to get into the region,” said Ojha. DMI members have continued to provide suggestions and connections to Ojha and others. There were difficulties physically getting the repeaters and radios into the region. The second repeater, the one that Dr. Panday constructed, was mislaid at customs. Ojha, using the connections made through the DMI, had to persuade officials to let it through.

“Almost certainly our relationship with the DMI saved lives,” said Ojha. “Due to the coordination we were able to manage before, during, and after the earthquake, we were able to bring reliable emergency communication technology to Nepal.”

The goal for the future is to establish more repeaters. Using the first two during the earthquake gave government officials a chance to see what was effective and what was not. Now they can continue forging a path by training village-based operators to use the wireless radio and by navigating through regulatory roadblocks.

“There are two questions you need to ask in these types of situations,” said Griss. “The first is: What should you do? In this case, ham radio was determined. The second is: How should you do it? This is the part that the DMI helped with. It’s the kind of thing you really feel good about.”