Correction: The original version of this story stated that goTenna has an audio capability.
When infrastructure collapses, it compounds the effect of disaster. Be it an explosion, flood or a fire, the same disaster taking out the communication networks people would normally use to manage their way through the disaster makes getting to safety that much harder. For people sent into disaster, or trained to operate in areas with collapsed infrastructure, having a communications infrastructure they can bring with them is invaluable. On March 28, goTenna announced a new version of its mesh networking toolkit designed to play nice with other devices, and marketed at military, law enforcement, wildfire fighters and disaster response customers.
“We started the company six-and-a-half years ago, the day after Hurricane Sandy here in New York City,” says Daniela Perdomo, co-founder and CEO of goTenna. “I did not have a background in tactical communication, but what became abundantly clear as a civilian living through this major disaster is that our communications infrastructure tends to fail when we need it most.”
Each goTenna device is a stand-alone tool that can work with other goTenna devices to transmit information through a mesh network. Multiple applications for the mesh network involve showing in real time the locations of people connected to the network, and allowing users to add information, like vehicle icons or plotted paths, onto the maps in a tablet screen.
One of the more notable use cases compatible with goTenna Pro and the new goTenna Pro X is Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK), developed by the government and available off-the-shelf for government users. ATAK is, first and foremost, a kind of “blue force tracker,” allowing users connected through the app to see where everyone is. It’s the kind of situational awareness tool that’s common in video games but harder to replicate in real life. Running ATAK over a mesh network means that the team can still have and share that kind of information even if other, traditional communication infrastructure like cell towers are down.
“We get into these disconnected environments and we have, you know, quite a bit of problems with being disconnected as far as technology perspective,” says Ari Delay, the La Honda, Calif., fire chief. “Our radios typically work, but when we attempt to communicate certain things that are geographic in nature, especially in the early phases of an incident, they’re hard to articulate because we typically don’t have hard copy maps and we don’t have a way to be able to move information back in between forces out in the field.”
Delay first started using goTenna when he purchased the commercial version with his own funds, and since then has found it an invaluable tool in the field. Delay described a fire his team responded to in Alturas, California, in the northeastern part of the state. In an area of zero connectivity, Delay used goTenna to plot routes through forest service roads and then share those routes with his team. That kind of plotting and planning is useful for both getting the right people to the danger, and getting people away from it.
“When we get into pretty hairy situations, we will define what we call TRAs, or ‘temporary refuge areas,’ and it’s basically a safety spot where we have provisions, where they will come and go back to protect themselves during a burnover or some type of a fire situation where it’s really untenable,” says Delay. “For me, this is allowing us to be able to communicate those types of things, message back and forth between our team in that completely disconnected environment. We’ve never had that ability before in the field.”
The goTenna Pro X is marketed specifically at military and public safety customers. Beyond the baseline capability to integrate the mesh network with other communications tools, it can operate on frequencies in the 142-175 MHz (VHF) & 445-480 MHz (UHF) ranges, can use end-to-end encryption, and each unit can last up to 30 hours on a single charge. It’s built to easily plug-in ATAK, and it includes goTenna’s own native situational awareness app. The pocket-sized transmitter can pair with iOS or android devices, and even without being paired to specific phones the transmitters can still relay other signals.
A standalone goTenna unit is priced at $849, for a mesh networking radio, a UHF or VHF antenna, Team Awareness app and ATAK plug-in. A Pro X Deployment Kit is priced at roughly $25,000 per kit, with each kit containing 20 Pro X devices and a charging case that can fit 30 devices, while weighing in at just 25 lbs. Repeatedly goTenna stressed the relative light weight and low cost of its technology, drawing from the strength as a commercial product first later adapted into a military and public safety tool.
It can also enable not just teams of humans, but teams of humans and drones.
“We had a request to map the entire core and center of the Paradise Camp Fire,” says Delay. “I utilized the goTenna Pro Xes to track the drone teams and use it for communications within the drones teams. They had lost pretty much all their infrastructure. We mapped about 23,000 acres over a couple of days with about 14 drone teams that consisted of law enforcement and fire folks throughout the state of California.”
Watch a video about it below:
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.