Internet of Things to The Rescue
Introduction: Project OWL is a technology startup company, formed out of the IBM Call for Code hackathon in 2018. IBM’s Call for Code competition brought 156 nations together to build technology to help communities prepare for and recover from natural disasters. Project OWL won the global grand prize with its innovative, cost-effective, off-grid communications platform, the ClusterDuck Protocol. Since winning the competition, Project OWL has deployed its technology in dozens of locations in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia.
The ClusterDuck Protocol (CDP) created by Project OWL currently runs on off-the-shelve Internet of Things (IoT) boards leveraging LoRa technology called Ducks. A cluster of these Ducks generate a network called the clusterduck network. This long-range and low-power network protocol supports low data rate applications. It consists of a proprietary physical layer that uses Chirp Spread Spectrum (CSS). In freely usable unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical bands at 433, 868, or 915 MHz, it depends on the given global region operating in (Höchstet al., 2020). The CDP currently has four components: a DuckLink IoT Device, MamaDuck IoT Device, PapaDuck IoT Device, and the OWL Data Management System (DMS). These devices are flashed with a custom operating system that instructs the devices how to create data, collect data, handle incoming and outgoing messages, and how to control the onboard radio chips. In March 2020, CDP officially became an open-source project under the Linux Foundation. The Ducks broadcast a WiFi or low-power Bluetooth access point where an end-user can connect to. Once a user connects, they can use the Duck portal page to submit emergency messages or any 256 character text message. Once the message is sent, the Duck sends that message using Device to Device (D2D) communication to the MamaDuck over LoRa (fig 1.0). The MamaDuck permeates that message using LoRa up the clusterduck network until it reaches the PapaDuck. The PapaDuck pushes the message up to the cloud platform, the DMS, using an Internet or satellite connection. The Duck devices are remarkably customizable. Besides using the devices for sending emergency messages, one can also attach sensors collecting data such as temperature and pressure, air quality, gas detection, and many others to better understand austere off-grid environments.
Project Owl has been working with government officials, universities, and communities in Puerto Rico to build a more resilient communication infrastructure to mitigate future interruptions and failures. Especially after seeing how Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico in 2017. About fifty percent of the Puerto Rico Police Departments' primary network, the P25 radio system, and most interoperability system equipment for emergency communications throughout Puerto Rico were not operational (Cordova et al., 2020). Ninety-five percent of all cell sites were knocked out of service due to physical tower damage and power failure since the grid was not functional ("Communications Crisis in Puerto Rico," 2019). The damage done to these types of infrastructures can be costly and time-consuming to restore. It may require maintenance or replacement of complex hardware, mainly if essential components such as cell towers or cables are concerned (EL & Mcheick, 2010). The ClusterDuck Protocol is a great technology that helps alleviate the cost and complexity issues to restore communications. The Ducks are relatively inexpensive and are low-power, operating off a rechargeable battery. A user just needs a device that can connect via Bluetooth or WiFi to be able to interact with Ducks.
Our first significant disaster relief type of network has been getting tested in Puerto Rico since its deployment in 2019. We installed solar-powered stationary wireless DuckLink devices around the island in communities and at Universities. Some of these permanent installations are at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, a tech workspace called Engine-4 in Bayamon, and PREMA government facilities in Humacao. This CDP Network collects about 10,000 data points daily of sensor readings and local university students testing the network. The network forwards all the data points up to OWL DMS so they can be monitored in real-time.
After our successful deployment of the ClusterDuck Network in Puerto Rico ran into a critical issue recently when earthquakes were hitting the island. The Papa duck device is the last node in a CDP Network, and it previously needed a WiFi connection to send the data to the OWL DMS. When the earthquakes struck Puerto Rico, our Papa Duck devices lost their internet connection and stopped sending OWL DMS data in real-time. I went to the drawing board to think of a new way to make the Papa Duck more intelligent and resilient to these network failures. WiFi is not entirely out of the question; we need alternatives to make sure this does not happen again and lose data.
The next best data connection from WiFi most times would be Long Term Evolution or LTE as most of us know it. Since the power grid and communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico are still a bit weak and susceptible to failures we can not heavily rely on them. The next best thing I came across is the RockBlock 9603, a small form factor low power Short-Burst Data modem (Fig 1.1). The RockBlock utilizes the Iridium Network, a network of 66 satellites in the earth's orbit that allows for devices to send Short-Burst Data. Using the Rockblock, the PapaDuck can bounce the data off the satellite to the DMS when internet connection is not available (Fig 1.2). When the PapaDuck receives a message in the field, it will first try to use a WiFi connection. If the WiFi is not available or unstable, it switches to use the satellite RockBlock 9603 modem. We can now retrieve our sensor data or emergency messages from anywhere globally without worrying that we will miss any emergency messages or sensor data readings due to failures in WiFi or LTE connectivity.
Fig. 1.1 Fig. 1.2
Conclusion: The CDP has grown in interest, and we now have networks deployed worldwide. Project OWL has recently won a grant in January of 2021 through the World Bank to deploy a ClusterDuck Network in the northern Indian region of the Himalayas, similar to the one in Puerto Rico. Project OWL has worked alongside IBM, Verizon, The U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, and local municipalities throughout the United States to provide disaster-resilient communications networks. Our open-source community has grown with 640+ (and counting) members, and the CDP is evolving to become more resilient and efficient than ever before. We welcome anyone and everyone to help keep the world connected one Duck device at a time.