PR-Holonet: Disaster Area Emergency Comms

An easy to build, setup, and use emergency communicator for disaster-struck zones with no working power or comms infrastructure.

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PR-Holonet is a communications module that can be used by any device with WiFi and an internet browser (computers, cellphones, others) to send and receive SMS messages. It is a project inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Harvey in Houston, and Irma in Key West.

It is built to support response and relief efforts to natural disasters by:
- first responders
- community leaders
- volunteer organizations and efforts

It is built to:
- facilitate the organization of relief and response efforts after a natural disaster
- work in areas with no power or communications infrastructure
- be easy to use
- isolate the communications infrastructure from the area affected by the natural disaster
- be used anywhere in the country, potentially the world
- help prevent the loss of life due to lack of communications infrastructure, as seen after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico

PR-Holonet is a low-cost, open-source emergency communications gateway that is easy to build, configure and use. It is built for operation in disaster-struck zones or hard-to-reach areas with little or no existing power or communication infrastructure. PR-Holonet can work as a gateway to cellular SMS services or as its own stand-alone communications network and can be used anywhere in the world. It is a strictly modular platform requiring little or no technical knowledge to build, with easy to source commercially available components, and without requiring tools of any sort.

The goal of this project is to provide comms during the initial phase of disaster response to first responders and community leaders. Hurricanes, tornadoes, wild fires, earthquakes, and snow storms are natural disaster challenges the country faces that can greatly impact existing comms infrastructure. PR-Holonet provides communications in disaster environments, where this lack of infrastructure can turn emergencies into a humanitarian crisis. It serves as a fast-response solution to enable planning and logistics during the assessment stage of disaster response while higher capacity systems are put in place.

PR-Holonet creates a reach-back mechanism to cellular SMS services by leveraging the IRIDIUM Communications Satellite Constellation. It is built under the premise of leveraging the widest set of available/existing equipment for use during emergency response. It will work with any computer or electronic device with Wi-Fi and an Internet browser to communicate over SMS messages, from anywhere in the world. It does not require any infrastructure other than a PR-Holonet unit, a 5V power source (Micro-USB, cellphone battery or solar), and a Wi-Fi device with an internet browser. PR-Holonet also serves as a stand-alone communications network, providing internal communication between units. The PR-Holonet backend is built using cloud-servers that provide the satellite gateway and process and route data. This isolates the communications services from the disaster zone in which it is operating.

PR-Holonet is completely modular and has been designed with the intent of facilitating its assembly within its deployment destination. It is meant to be built using simple instructions and little if any know-how or technical expertise. Assuming the backend is active and online, assembly by a non-technical person should take 10 minutes or less. All the building components were purposely selected from commercial off-the shelf and low-cost products in order to facilitate sourcing.

  • 1 × Raspberry Pi 3 The brains of the unit
  • 1 × RockBlock MK II The satellite "antenna"
  • 1 × USB Portable Battery Charger To power the system. The type you would use for your cellphone
  • 1 × Foldable Solar Charger To charge the portable battery
  • 1 × Female to Female Breadboard Jumpers To connect the RockBlock to the Raspberry Pi

View all 10 components

  • System Design: Playing with numbers (Costs)

    inventive.prototypes04/29/2018 at 19:26 0 comments

    Hello! Thanks for taking the time to visit the project! 

    This post will explain all costs associated with assembling a PR-Holonet unit, activating it, and operating it. In the ballpark of things, the cost of building a PR-Holonet system as presented in this post will vary from $420 to $595 depending on your final configuration. The differences only affect the capacity of the system to operate in the absence of enough sunlight; as well as the capacity to power/recharge other equipment or the ability to recharge and keep the system operational at the same time. It does not affect the core functionality of sending and receiving messages. It also bears mentioning that I will not be covering shipping costs or taxes. The system has been designed to minimize the difficulty of sourcing the components needed as well as to be used pretty much anywhere; but that also means that I can't, in good faith, give good numbers on shipping costs or taxes to cover all scenarios for anyone to build it.

    All cost estimates provided in this post will be in US dollars. Please convert as necessary if you are living in another country. 

    This log is long, and it contains a lot of information. I may break it up later in the future. For now, grab a snack, turn some music on, and enjoy.

    Thank you!

    Assembly Costs

    The two key components of this system, the Raspberry Pi 3 B and the Rockblock MK II, should be available at fixed pricing.

    The rest of the costs may vary depending on sourcing or capacity. The list of items is as follows:

    • A portable cellphone battery charger
    • A foldable solar cell charger
    • A non-metallic project box (ideally water-proof)
    • A microSD memory card
    • Female to female jumper cables
    • Spare micro USB cables

    PR-Holonet is meant to be used in emergency and technology-austere environments. For this reason, the actual list of parts has been put together to enable a system that can:

    • Work on its own
    • Power, enable, or leverage other tech equipment that can be of use to help relief efforts

    Following is a list of the actual parts and costs being used to build the system. For a budget version of the system, see the end of the post.

    Total Kit Cost: $593.85

    System Core

    The core is made up of the Pi, Rockblock, female to female jumper wires, microUSB cables, and microSD card.

    Part NameDescriptionCost ($)Source
    Raspberry Pi 3 BThe brains of the operation$35.00Adafruit
    RockBlock MK IIIridium Short Burst Data
    Samsung EVO microSD cardCapacity
    - 64GB
    Class 10 UHS 3
    - Write: 60Mbps
    - Read: 90Mbps

    Female to Female Jumper Wires- 20-pack tape
    - 6 inches each
    - .1" pitch
    Anker Micro USB CablesTwo microUSB cables that can be
    used to power the Pi or
    charge the battery

    Project Case

    To allow the project to be weather resistant, I've selected a dust-proof, water resistant project box. Down the road I'd like to really test out how hot the system gets and actually test its water-proof worthiness, for now it the current case gets the job done.

    Part NameDescriptionCost ($)Source
    Uxcell Junction Box
    DIY Case Enclosure
    - 250mm x 150mm x 100mm

    ... Read more »

  • Cultivemos la Esperanza

    inventive.prototypes04/22/2018 at 23:21 0 comments

    Pasó un mes y medio antes de poder saber algo de papi. Pasaron 2.5 meses antes de poder escucharlo. En esos meses descubrí la diferencia entre no poder hablar con mi familia por no tener tiempo  y no poder hablar con mi familia porque no habían maneras disponibles y sin saber cuándo o cómo podría o si sería posible. 

    Quiero que este proyecto se enfoque en cómo ayudar a la gente que lo necesite. Que pueda mejorar basado en las experiencias de la gente que ayuda. El enfoque de los escritos para este proyecto será acerca de los aspectos técnicos de como construir y utilizar PR-Holonet. Pero en éste trataré de explicar el por qué de este proyecto. 

    Este escrito NO será técnico, y todo aquel interesado sólo en esa información puede pasarlo por alto. 

    Al criarse con huracanes, uno aprende a tenerles respeto. No le deseo un huracán a nadie. 

    Durante el paso del huracán Irma, ayudé a papi a preparar la casa. El tuvo que viajar a Puerto Rico a ayudar a mi abuela y tía, y yo me quedé con mis hermanas. Fue una situación tensa e intensa, pero gracias a Dios todo salió bien, el huracán no pasó directamente por Puerto Rico y mi familia lo sobrepasó bien. Pero los huracanes no son sistemas que afecten sólo a unos pocos, y Key West no tuvo tanta suerte. Después de Irma, pensé que ese era el fin de la temporada, que las probabilidades de otro huracán fuerte eran pocas. Después de todo, ese era el segundo huracán fuerte de la temporada luego de Harvey en Houston. 

    Una semana después apareció María. Puerto Rico suele tener suerte al tratarse de huracanes fuertes. Por lo general tienden a pasar suficientemente altos o bajos como para no impactar la Isla directamente. Pero María me llenó de un terror que surge de la impotencia ante la naturaleza... Una semana luego de ver cómo Irma transformó Miami en una nueva pequeña Venecia, habíase aquí un huracán categoría 5 con intención de visitar directamente a Puerto Rico. Una semana y media después de Irma, María barrió la Isla...

    No sé si pueda explicar en su completa plenitud lo que uno siente ante una situación así. En general, cuando ocurren situaciones malas en Puerto Rico uno se queja. Pero luego que lo procesa es manos a la obra y a trabajar porque al final del día nadie hace las cosas por uno. Somos responsables de moldear el futuro con nuestras manos. Luego de María, tenía cierta esperanza de empezar a escuchar la gente quejándose. La tiraera de culpa de un bando a otro que, aunque no es ideal ni productiva, tiende a señalar que la Isla se esta movilizando a reestablecer la normalidad. 

    Los Puertorriqueños somos alborotosos y felices. Hablamos "hasta por los codos". A veces hablamos un tanto de más, jeje, pero así somos. Mi esperanza era escuchar a la gente, aún si era quejándose. Porque significa que las cosas están malas, pero nunca tan malas como para no sacar el tiempo para quejarse. Como decimos en Puerto Rico, "pudo haber sido peor", esa era la esperanza mía para el mejor escenario posible ante el impacto de este huracán. 

    Sin embargo, después de María... Nada. 1.5 meses de nada. Un ensordecedor, aterrorizante, vacío lleno de nada... De la misma manera que uno reconoce la seriedad de una conversación con una pareja, o amigo, o familiar por la abundancia con la que se comparte el silencio; así mismo fueron desconectadas de el resto del mundo 3.4 millones de voces. Durante esa primera semana luego de María no había energía eléctrica, ni agua potable, ni comunicaciones,...

    Read more »

  • Why build hope...?

    inventive.prototypes04/20/2018 at 03:41 0 comments

    It took 1.5 months to learn anything about my dad. It took 2.5 months to finally hear him live over the phone. There is a difference between not having the chance to call your family, and not being able to and not knowing if you will be able to. 

    I want this project to focus on the good it is able to do. I want this project to grow on the experiences of how it gets to help people. I will focus all other posts on the system, how it works and how to use it. But in this one post I'll try to explain why I'm doing it. 

    This post will not be technical, and you are definitely welcome to skip it.

    Growing up with hurricanes has taught me to be respectful of them. They are not an experience I wish on anyone. 

    I helped my dad during hurricane Irma, he had to travel to Puerto Rico and I helped with his house stateside. It was a tense situation to be in. Hurricanes are not trivial events. We prepared both houses, him in Puerto Rico with my grandmother and aunt and me with my sisters. Thankfully our family was blessed. Irma for the most part missed Puerto Rico. Key West was not so lucky. After Irma, I thought that had been it. That was the second big one for the season, Harvey had hit Houston a few days before. I thought, "Well 2 in one season should be it for the year".

    A week later Maria shows up. Puerto Rico is lucky in the sense that more often than not the really bad hurricanes seem to miss the island by going a bit too high or too low for a direct hit. But Maria filled me with dread. A week after watching how Irma created a temporary Venice in Miami, here was a Cat 5 hurricane, getting ready to run straight through Puerto Rico. A week and a half after Irma barely missed Puerto Rico, the Island was swept.

    I do not know that I can explain what it felt like. When something bad happens in Puerto Rico, you complain, loudly more often than not. Then you roll your sleeves up and get to work fixing it because at the end of the day, "no one will do stuff for you". You have to own your stuff. After Maria I hoped to hear that complaining, the usual blames being thrown, the ones that sadly are the indicatives of efforts being put together to fix the Island up as well as possible again. 

    Puerto Ricans are loud. And happy. We talk a lot. Sometimes more than we should, heh. I was hoping to hear that loudness, even if it was just complaining. It means things are bad, but never so bad you don't have the time to complain. As we say in Puerto Rico, "it could have been worse". I wished that to be the best case scenario.

    After Maria though... Nothing. 1.5 months of nothing. Deafening. Exasperating. Nothingness. The same way one recognizes the seriousness of a conversation with a family member, or a partner, or a friend by the abundance of words not being said, this was 3.4 million people worth of muted voices. During the first week, there was no power, no potable water, no communication, no gas/petrol infrastructure, no roads, no grocery stores, and for a lot of people no home. And then for the next one, and the next one, and the next... 6 months out the electrical grid is still not stable or fully operational. I understand that there are multiple factors that led to this point. But the fact that this is even a thing, that recovery has not been possible as the next hurricane season comes up, speaks volumes about the situation, its magnitude and scale. I do not mean to trivialize the work of the first responders, government officials, and volunteers who have genuinely done their utmost to help. To those who have done everything within their purview. Thank you. But this was and is a very daunting situation, of humanitarian crisis scale even. ...

    Read more »

  • System Design: An initial dive in

    inventive.prototypes04/18/2018 at 04:06 0 comments

    Hardware Communication Gateway

    PR-Holonet consists of 2 parts:

    • The hardware communication gateway
    • The cloud backend

    Both systems are meant to be as low cost and modular as possible. The full hardware communications unit is composed of :

    • Raspberry Pi 3 unit ($35)
    • Rockblock MK II Iridium Short Burst Data (SBD) modem ( ~$250)
    • Cellphone Battery Charger ($170 or less, depends on what you get)
    • Foldable Solar Charger ($60 to $90, depends on what you get)
    • A waterproof case ( ~$20)
    • 1 micro usb cable ( < $4)
    • 6 female to female breadboard jumpers (< $1)
    • The charging cable for your portable battery ( comes with battery)

    Raspberry Pi 3 and Rockblock MK II

    36W 18V solar charger

    You get 2 USB 2.0 charging ports (5V/2.4A) and one 18V/1.5A barrel port

    40Ah Lithium battery. Can power a laptop. Also has a simple but useful LED "flashlight"

    Nice waterproof box large enough for everything

    At its most basic setup, PR-Holonet is composed of the Raspberry Pi 3 and the Rockblock. The Pi runs a Flask web server that serves as the interface for the user. It is also responsible for generating the WiFi access point that users will connect to. The Pi is used to power the Rockblock MK II, which is responsible for beaming the messages up to the Iridium satellite constellation. The Rockblock talks to the Pi over serial and can be connected by hand to the Pi.

    Connecting the Rockblock

    Connecting the Pi

    On a 26.8AH lithium battery, PR-Holonet can be on for a couple days (3 to 4 so far in my experience, although I have yet to do a well-documented test). Depending on needs, you can find upwards of 50Ah batteries which can also be used to power and recharge a full laptop. In my current iteration I am using a 40 Ah battery. When coupled together with a foldable solar charger, the system can effectively be on 24/7. What’s more, given that PR-Holonet consumes little power, the system can generate enough power for itself and for devices to connect to it. Ideally, you’ll want to use at least a 36W portable solar charger. It is small enough to be portable, but generates enough power to be useful, especially dealing with such a big battery. Between the solar charger and the battery, the system should be able to work through the night and a couple rainy days. It should also be able to charge a cellphone or laptop if needed.

    In terms of setup, if you have a working backend system and a pre-made micro-sd card with the OS and PR-Holonet software, configuration is a matter of

    • Putting the microSD card on the Pi
    • Connecting 6 jumper cables (power, ground, tx, rx, ringer, ground) (yes, 2 grounds :) )
    • Plug the battery into the Pi
    • Count to 30
    • You’re up!

    You should see your WiFi access point pop up on your device. And that is it, PR-Holonet is running and ready to go!

    “You keep talking about the backend, but WHAT IS IT?”

    You ask. Well, good question!

    Cloud Services Backend 

    The backend consists of three components:

    • The Rockblock gateway
    • An Amazon AWS setup
    • Twilio

    The Rockblock gateway refers to the Rock7 Core services. Rockblock being the Iridium antenna, Rock7 the company, and Core being their management portal. You’ll need to purchase credits (50 bytes = 1 credit) as well as pay the monthly activation fee ( ~$15).

    From amazon you’ll need a free account to use the following services:

    • CloudFormation
    • Lambda
    • Amazon S3

    Finally you’ll need a phone number from Twilio that can be used for text messages. You’ll want 1 number per PR-Holonet unit as well as enough credit to support message routing.

    The Rock7 Core system takes care of transmissions to and from the Iridium system. The Amazon cloud services...

    Read more »

  • Detalles del Proyecto

    inventive.prototypes04/17/2018 at 04:14 0 comments

    Comunicaciones en Zonas de Desastre: PR-Holonet

    PR-Holonet es un punto de acceso de comunicación de bajo costo y “open source” que es fácil de construir, configurar y utilizar. Fue construido para se utilizado en zonas de desastre o lugares de difícil acceso con poca o ninguna infraestructura de generación eléctrica o de comunicación. PR-Holonet puede funcionar como un punto de acceso a los servicios de mensaje de texto de la red celular telefónica, o cómo su propia red independiente de comunicación. Puede ser utilizado en cualquier parte del mundo. Es una plataforma modular, diseñada con la intención de ser fácil de construir con un mínimo de destreza y conocimiento técnico, así como compuesto de componentes fácil de adquirir comercialmente. No requiere herramientas para ser construido.

    La meta principal de este proyecto es proveer un sistema de comunicaciones que pueda ser utilizado durante la fase inicial de respuesta a un desastre por agencias de respuesta a emergencias o líderes comunitarios. Entre los eventos naturales a los que el país se enfrenta anualmente hay  huracanes, tornados, fuegos, terremotos y tormentas de nieve; para mencionar algunos. Todos estos eventos tienen un gran potencial de afectar la infraestructura de comunicaciones y PR-Holonet provee un medio de comunicación en circunstancias donde la falta de ella puede convertir un desastre natural en una crisis humanitaria. Provee un método de respuesta rápida que puede acelerar el proceso de planificación y logística durante la fase de estudio y compilación de data, en lo que se establece o restablece sistemas de mayor capacidad.

    PR-Holonet crea un mecanismo de comunicación a servicios de mensaje de texto de red celular fuera del área impactada utilizando la red satelital de comunicaciones IRIDIUM. Ha sido construido bajo la premisa de no “reinventar la rueda”. En un mundo donde los equipos celulares y las computadores son casi omnipresentes, PR-Holonet se enfoca en utilizar equipo y sistemas disponibles con los que las personas ya están familiarizados. El proyecto funciona con cualquier equipo electrónico que tenga WiFi y brinde acceso a un navegador de internet para permitirle al usuario enviar y recibir mensajes de texto. No requiere de ninguna infraestructura de tierra que no sea una unidad de PR-Holonet, fuente de potencia de 5V (cargador celular micro USB, baterías portables con conector microUSB, cargador solar). PR-Holonet también puede ser utilizado como una red independiente de comunicación. El “backend” del sistema consiste de utilizar servidores remotos en “el cloud” que trabajan proveen el punto de acceso satelital, así como el procesamiento y enrutamiento de mensajes. De esta manera se aísla el sistema de comunicación de los daños infraestructurales.

    PR-Holonet es un sistema completamente modular, y ha sido diseñado para ser fácil de construir en su lugar de necesidad. No requiere instrucciones complicadas para ser construido o activado. Asumiendo que el “backend” del sistema ha sido activado previamente, no debe tomar más 10 diez minutos el proceso de construcción y activación de la unidad.

  • Descripción

    inventive.prototypes04/16/2018 at 02:14 0 comments

    PR-Holonet es un módulo de comunicación que puede ser utilizado por cualquier dispositivo electrónico con WiFi y navegador de Internet (computadoras, celulares, otros) para enviar y recibir mensajes de texto celular. El proyecto nació como resultado del efecto del huracán María en Puerto Rico, Harvey en Houston, e Irma en Key West.

    El propósito de PR-Holonet es brindar apoyo a los esfuerzos de respuesta y socorro luego de un desastre natural. El proyecto está orientado a ser utilizado por:

    • Equipos de socorro
    • Líderes comunitarios
    • Organizaciones de ayuda voluntaria

    Fue construido de manera tal que permita:

    • Facilitar la organización de esfuerzos de socorro luego de un desastre natural
    • Trabajar en áreas sin energía eléctrica o sistemas de comunicación disponible
    • Fácil de construir, activar, y utilizar
    • Aislar la infraestructura de comunicación necesaria de el área impactada
    • Ser utilizado en cualquier parte del país, y potencialmente el mundo
    • Ayudar a prevenir la pérdida de vida humana como resultado de la falta de infraestructura de comunicación. Asi como ha sido visto luego de el Huracan María en Puerto Rico

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Bhavesh Kakwani wrote 05/08/2018 at 20:21 point

Really cool! I didn't know that the Iridium constellation was so accessible to the maker community. Thanks for sharing your progress and I hope your project goes very well.

  Are you sure? yes | no

inventive.prototypes wrote 05/09/2018 at 16:55 point

It is! Thanks and I'll share more soon!

  Are you sure? yes | no

cuibonobo wrote 04/16/2018 at 18:54 point

I'm not clear on how the user-facing website should work. How will folks access the site if DNS doesn't work? Does the interface verify your phone number somehow before letting you read messages? What abuse-prevention mechanisms are in place to prevent spam?

  Are you sure? yes | no

inventive.prototypes wrote 04/16/2018 at 22:08 point

Awesome questions and thank you!!

It will have a captive portal-like setup. Essentially any address you try to write in will be masked and re-routed into the self-hosted website. Ideally, this will be a secondary mechanism to an actual URL people should expect to use.

In terms of phone number verification. As it stands now, think of PR-Holonet as a public bulletin board. You do NOT want to post credit card numbers or sensitive information if the unit being used is not yours. This is not a secure system in its current implementation. The main gap this aims to fill is enabling communications in an environment completely void of it. 

Here's an example. When the distribution of food and help was being organized in PR, truck drivers were asked to leave their name and number and expect to be called back once the agencies in charge had a plan in place. But a lot of the drivers could not do this to a practical effect, because there was no cell coverage in the areas they lived or operated in (or more than 90% of the island for that matter). PR-Holonet or something like it could have helped in this situation. 

In terms of abuse prevention, another great question. At this moment there is no security embedded in it. I just haven't had the time to work on it. As it stands right now, the prototype provides emergency, non-private, communication in a public bulletin board manner. This is why at least initially, my goal would be for volunteer organizations, or community leaders to use it. Because setting up a unit and opening it to public at large is doable, but requires more work and planning. And also more time :)

Abuse prevention, user authentication mechanisms, message privacy protection - these are all things I have in mind and hope to work with. But in an extreme case, just being able to communicate is the important first need. 

Thank you for your great questions, and thank you for your support!

  Are you sure? yes | no

cuibonobo wrote 04/20/2018 at 16:06 point

Thanks for your response and the technical dive-in you posted a few days ago. I'm very familiar with Flask (I use it extensively for work), so I'd be very interested in helping out in any way I can. I also noticed that your GitHub repo doesn't have any code in it yet. If you need a private git repository to collaborate while you get your code ready, check my profile for contact info and hit me up.

I do understand that in emergency situations we often give privacy/security less importance. I guess what made me think of that stuff is that since your project uses services that require a subscription + messaging fees, it can become a liability to the person that chooses to run this in an emergency situation... During María I became extremely frustrated with the disinformation being disseminated by people acting in bad faith. I believe in the general goodness of people, but some sort of system of accountability should be put in place also.

Anyway, I'd be happy to help with this if you need a collaborator!

  Are you sure? yes | no

inventive.prototypes wrote 04/28/2018 at 16:03 point

No problem at all, I'll keep it in mind and thanks for the offer! 

  Are you sure? yes | no

sashascreativeoutlet wrote 04/16/2018 at 11:53 point

Keep it up!

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