Tue 1 Feb, 2011
Tags: ad-hoc networks, Android, mesh networks, serval
Following up yesterday’s post about mesh networking in disaster situations, The Register had a story about doing just that–and a project that was being coordinated in Australia to provide mesh communications via Android handsets.
The Serval Project (named after the African cat) seeks to create a method by which communications networks can be quickly resurrected after disaster situations through a combination of mobile-to-mobile mesh and air-dropped communications ‘towers’. They’ve put together a demonstration system capable of relaying VOIP (which seems to be their focus) in areas without connectivity, and their project scope indicates that they also plan to deploy the project to create mobile networks in areas without any connectivity.
One of the interesting details that they’ve noted is their plan to allow users to dial other users with the same phone number that they would normally make use of were regular connectivity available; they focus on disaster recovery situations and note that having to remember a new number in such a situation to contact a loved one would be unnecessary stress.
They plan to release their code under a (not specified at this time) open source license, and as implied above their target audience appears to be Android handset users–though given the open-source nature of the project, a bit of scope creep is likely inevitable; porting to other mobile operating systems (or providing compatibility to non-mobile VOIP programs) is likely, as is expansion of capabilities to text.
Hopefully, this project will succeed; there have been a number of projects over the years to research mesh networking, but none of them have gotten that far off the ground–the majority appear to have been University projects; allegedly, Microsoft has a department focusing on developing meshnets as a useful networking tool as well. MITRE did release some code several years ago, but unfortunately that project looks to have been abandoned; the last date on the page is 2006, and the code appears to have been aimed at the 2.2 kernel–not exactly modern stuff.
The chief difficulty that appears to arise is the inability to gain enough adoption to create and perpetuate the network. Without widespread adoption, there’s not enough mesh to make the network usable; without a reason to adopt, there’s no widespread adoption–meshnet geeks are relatively few and far between on the ground. While this would be supremely useful in a disaster situation, unless it was deployed before the disaster it would likely not get a chance to be used–after all, if you can’t access the regular networks, you can’t obtain the app to access the irregular networks.
Adding it as a capability to the stock Android OS would be one route to take, though this is unlikely to work–the handset manufacturers would be unlikely to allow deployment to existing handsets. Adding it to the market as an app still brings up the ‘critical mass’ problem; without enough people, the app is more or less useless. Targeting specific groups (hikers trying to keep in touch; people who want to be prepared for a disaster) still brings up a limited audience, though successful use might spur adoption in a wider sense. Tying it into a social network might have some promise–given that the mesh involves sharing transmission resources to communicate. Perhaps an exclusive beta targeted to people who live geographically close to each other might allow enoiugh adoption to seed a critical mass?
Whichever route is taken, though, it would be in the best interests of many people for Serval to succeed. With communications already an essential part of life, interruptions in such will just become more and more disruptive over time.