Supporting Disaster Communications from Space

FEMA.gov
by Rafael Lemaitre

Hume Center Director of Research Robert McGwier (right) and research associate Zachary Lefke are building radio antennas that will be used in the Virginia Tech Ground Station. Photo Credit: Virginia Tech
Hume Center Director of Research Robert McGwier (right) and research associate Zachary Lefke are building radio antennas that will be used in the Virginia Tech Ground Station. Photo Credit: Virginia Tech

Conventional lines of communication can be impacted after a disaster. This we know. Phone lines can go down, cell service can be overrun with calls, texts, and emails and it can be difficult for survivors as well as first responders to get in touch. This isn’t a far-fetched scenario or intellectual exercise. It’s a reality we’ve seen happen over and over during disasters small and large.

Enter Amateur Radio—or what those involved in the hobby refer to as “ham radio.”

Amateur radio enthusiasts—or “hams” as they’re often called—often step in during emergencies to help bridge communication gaps between first responders to keep people safe when smartphones, cell towers, and internet technologies we rely on every day go down. Volunteer hams also serve as a valuable source of information during the initial states of an emergency.  Often, hams provide this public service in association with volunteer groups like Community Emergency Response Teams, who are always ready to spring into action quickly and effectively.1

We owe it to these volunteers to do everything we can to support their work to help communities bounce back when disaster strikes.  That’s why we’ve partnered with the American Radio Relay League and researchers from Virginia Tech’s Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology in Blacksburg, Virginia—one of the leaders in amateur radio technology—to develop a new communications satellite that will help amateur radio operators transmit radio signals across the United States 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  After all, disasters can happen any place and any time.

With this new satellite, scheduled to launch in 2017, Hams involved in supporting disaster communications will have a more reliable connection and a new level of capability in their communications.2 Right now, radio signals used by amateurs must often be bounced off the ionosphere to accommodate communication over long distances.  Unfortunately, this type of radio propagation isn’t reliable because signal reach and quality can be impacted or even halted by space weather events like solar flares and geomagnetic storms.2  This satellite is unique because it will provide another layer of support for emergency services­ by providing a dedicated communications hub for hams orbiting above the U.S. in geosynchronous orbit every day. It will help emergency managers deployed to disasters support long-term communications for first responders on the ground—and become another invaluable tool at their disposal.2

Amateur radio operators have come to the rescue on more than one occasion—like during Hurricane Sandy—when landlines and cell phones were left out of commission throughout New York and New Jersey.

Hams also made a difference in 2013, when Colorado was hit with historic flooding. As floodwaters ravaged areas across the state, they threatened a wastewater plant that served over 80,000 people. Volunteers from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service—the American Radio Relay League’s disaster communications arm—leapt into action, creating a network to monitor the situation and collect data. As a result, they were able to take remote control of the facility and helped prevent any wastewater from spilling out with the floods.3

This new partnership with hams will help make our communities more resilient, and we look forward to a successful launch.

Sources:

  1. Amateur Radio Relay League Page: Amateur Radio Emergency Communication
  2. Virginia Tech Press Release: “First amateur radio in geosynchronous orbit will aid disaster communications.”
  3. Case Study: Amateur Radio Volunteers Protect Community Water Supply