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The balloon, afloat over the football field.

A few weeks ago, a curious new object appeared on the Institute’s skyscape. A large balloon, floating over the football field (it has since been taken down), had IITM’s residents wondering what it was doing there. As it turns out, the balloon is part of a joint project to create a complete disaster management system, starting from an early warning system to a post-disaster communication setup. The project is being undertaken by the IITs at Madras, Hyderabad and Kanpur, along with the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) and the Universities of Keio and Tokyo, Japan. Professor Devendra Jalihal from the Department of Electrical Engineering heads the part of the project dealing with post-disaster communication at IITM.

Prof. Devendra Jalihal

Prof Jalihal says, ā€œDuring a disaster, most normal modes of communication are not available, and reliable news from the affected area is hard to come by, which leads to rumour-mongering. Also, survivors find it hard to get out a message to their loved ones, informing them that they are all right. We’re trying to remedy this situation with the system we are developing. The basic idea is that mobile phones are ubiquitous and can be used by rescue workers, instead of complex, highly specialized equipment. Also, once the system is set up, it will allow survivors to get in touch with the rescue workers and request assistance on a helpline in the form of text or voice messages. Their personal details will be obtained from their mobile number. All of this data will then be stored in a database for everyone around the world to find.ā€

The main piece of equipment in the proposed system is a balloon-mounted antenna functioning as the base station of a new emergency mobile network, which is easy to set up and also has a large range of coverage. It will also have FM capabilities for broadcasting. The balloon can be inflated and be up in the air in a few hours. This was tested multiple times in the football field and all it requires is a few cylinders of pressurised gas, which can be easily carried in a small vehicle even to remote areas. The balloon will be at a height of 30-40 m and is estimated to have coverage in a radius of about 10-20 km, hence it will be placed in nearby regions which were not hit as badly, so that the main switching centre and databases can be set up near it. These will serve as the link to the outside world via either satellite communication or the existing infrastructure in less severe disasters.

The GSM base station, in the basket of the balloon, which will function as a floating network tower of sorts.
Circuitry inside the GSM base station, mounted in the basket of the balloon.
Equipment for the main switching centre

In the disaster region proper, small antennas a few metres high will be set up, having a range of 1-3 km for voice and text communication and WiFi access in a radius of about 100 metres, for the rescue workers to send real-time videos and images to the world at large, providing an accurate, up-to-date view of the situation. These small antennas will talk to the large antenna on the balloon.

The system is envisaged to work as follows:

  1. Radio broadcasts will be sent out continually, informing people of the network they have to connect to, as well as which numbers they have to call. A nation-wide common emergency number may have been mandated by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) beforehand.

  2. Survivors will then connect to the emergency network that has been set up, and call the helpline to ask for assistance. Their personal details will be obtained from their mobile phone number and these will then be stored in a database.

  3. Rescue workers will be able to use the network to coordinate with each other, provide news about the situation and call for assistance from the main operations centre.

  4. The databases will authenticate information coming from the survivors as well as rescue workers and convert it into standard, searchable formats such as People Finder Interchange Format (PFIF), along with videos and images for the outside world.

Who knew an innocuous-looking balloon was the centerpiece of a visionary project hopefully destined to help save many lives, especially in India, where disasters are common and rescue operations haphazard at times? We hope to see many more socially relevant projects of this sort in IITM in the future.

Picture credits: Nithyanand Rao

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