Researcher Leverages Land Cruisers for Outback Emergency Communications
Monday, July 18, 2016 | Comments
The Australian Outback has long been renowned for arid temperatures, rugged landscapes and natural beauty. While these attributes have made the Outback iconic, they also pose many risks to the people who live, work and vacation in the area, and the large, desolate spaces make communications difficult.

With help from its Land Cruisers, Toyota, along with advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, is looking to make the Outback a little safer by offering a new kind of communications with the Toyota Emergency Network.

“Land Cruiser is one of the biggest and most popular 4x4s in Australia,” said Mike Spirkovski, executive creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi Australia. “It’s synonymous with the Outback.”

Because of the harsh environment and a lack of communications infrastructure, finding reliable communications in the Outback, especially during an emergency, is difficult and at times impossible, Spirkovski said. Satellite phones generally work in the area, but the high cost of that equipment limits its usefulness for many, he added.

Spirkovski estimated that there are about 19,000 wireless towers in Australia and about 500,000 Land Cruisers. Aware of the need for better coverage in the Outback, Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi wondered if there was a way to leverage the many Land Cruisers in the outback to do so.

So, the companies partnered with Dr. Paul Gardner, a researcher who specializes in remote and humanitarian communications at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, to develop the Toyota Emergency Network. The network piggybacks Wi-Fi on standard UHF frequencies and combines them with a technique called delay tolerant networking (DTN) to provide communications in remote areas without coverage.

Unlike a regular phone or communications device that has to check that the line is connected and fails if the line can’t be found, a device using DTN sends a message to a point and then holds and stores it at that point until it finds another connection, where it sends the message along to the next point.

With the network, someone outside of regular coverage could send a message using their phone and that message could be received by a nearby Land Cruiser with the technology. The Land Cruiser’s device would then store that message until it got into the range of another network-enabled Land Cruiser, which would then receive and store the message. The process would continue until an emergency call center received the message, Spirkovski said.

The companies designed the cylindrical device that enables the network in a Land Cruiser to resemble the scrolls used by messengers in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks would secure important messages in a scroll canister, and a series of messengers would run it across the continent, passing off the message at different points when a fresh messenger was needed.

Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi see the emergency network serving a similar purpose but in a more modern way, Spirkovski said. “It’s creating a network where there isn’t one.”

Gardner has been testing the network in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park outside of Adelaide since August 2015. The technology has been deployed in several Land Cruisers used by park rangers and is being refined based on the feedback of those users.

“It’s pretty rugged out there,” Spirkovski said of the park. “It’s tough, and if it (the network) can work out there, it can work anywhere in the country.”

With testing going well, the biggest obstacle remaining for the network is figuring out the best ways to deploy it, Spirkovski said.

Once the network rolls out, the first adopters will likely be emergency users, such as park rangers, Spirkovski said. Adoption by rural users, such as farmers, and then others interested in participating in the network will likely follow.

The team working on the network met with Toyota’s new product development team earlier this year and discussed how to efficiently implement the technology into the manufacturing process. The team hopes that the network is eventually a standard feature of every Land Cruiser that rolls off the production line, Spirkovski said. “That would be the holy grail.”

The device will also be available off the shelf for installation in Land Cruisers that don’t have the technology.

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On 8/4/16, Leon van der Linde said:
10 10 for Toyota. This is a great way of forcing people to buy your product. But why limit it to Land Cruisers? Why not for other Toyota products? People use other products to travel on the better roads through the Outback that are really long journeys — where fuel pumps and help are hundreds of kilometers apart.

On 8/3/16, Luigi Gente Magnani said:
While this technique shares many concepts with well-established store-and-forward technologies, e.g. packet radio, it is a very brilliant and clever application, which in my opinion, can be improved still further.

On 8/3/16, Tim M said:
What a great idea

On 8/2/16, Damian Lopez said:
The article describes what is essentially a store-and-forward opportunistic network — something that has been in use for quite some time by the ham radio community, digipeaters and NASA Deep Space Network. It is a great idea when you don't have an all-reaching network, but it poses two major challenges: latency and assured delivery. The first one can be a major problem with emergency communications, especially when you depend on a ground vehicle covering long distances before it can pass on a distress message to the nearest to the nearest node. The second challenge involves message flooding; acknowledgements are not a realistic option with high latency, leading to potential congestion issues. The system is possible but quite tricky to implement I look forward to reading more about it.

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