Students hope to create more reliable emergency communications network

January 14, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A collaboration between Penn State engineers and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (DHS S&T) Directorate, is working to give emergency personnel unhindered communications when responding to an incident or disaster.

"First responders will go into regions that are a 'denied communications' environment," said Sven Bilén, head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs and leader of the Penn State effort.

In some cases, it could be an instance where a communications network isn't available, such as firefighters battling a blaze in a remote location. In other cases, the existing infrastructure might not be functioning. Bilén said Superstorm Sandy knocked out some communications for emergency personnel, and talking with one another can be a challenge even in non-disaster situations, such as trying to access a cellular network during a major event.

"You have a denied environment when you have 100,000 fans on the cell network," he said, referring to problems experienced by wireless providers around Beaver Stadium during home football games. "In order to provide critical communications between people, something else is needed."

The collaboration has been developing a portable and rapidly deployable ultra-high frequency (UHF) system that uses a series of repeaters to allow emergency personnel to communicate with one another without having to rely on existing infrastructure. One of the many design challenges is enabling the system to integrate with existing DHS and first responder services. In response, the collaboration has been working directly with Penn State emergency management and other first responders.

Over the past few months, undergraduate engineering students have been testing a UHF system on the Penn State campus and other locations.

These field evaluations include testing a UHF repeater on the top of Beaver Stadium's press box during the Blue-White football scrimmage in April, running spectrum scans during the Ohio State game and a stressing feasibility test during the Indiana football game.

Bilén said the concept also allows for a mobile repeater with a drone or other aircraft acting as the UHF signal relay. A flight test for the mobile repeater using a low-cost radio-controlled plane was conducted at Ft. Indiantown Gap in Annville, Pa., during the past summer.

The work was also the focus of a senior engineering capstone design project this past spring. The project team won the Boeing Systems Design Award at the College of Engineering's Spring 2012 Project Design Showcase.

Although the idea to use a repeater on a different frequency band for emergency responders has been around for quite a while, it wasn't researched much until Andrew Weinert, a 2009 Penn State information science and technology graduate and Lincoln Laboratory researcher, worked with DHS S&T to develop a program to explore the concept in more depth.

Weinert approached Bilén, who also directs the Student Space Programs Laboratory, to develop a system.

Bilén said building the equipment needed for a UHF communications system is similar to some of the work done for communications to space satellites.

"We had been developing a radio for our CubeSat satellite," he explained. "We could prototype things very quickly." This radio was designed, built and tested entirely by undergraduates and formed the heart of the system tested this past summer and fall.

With respect to the collaboration, Steven DeVore, a 2012 electrical engineering graduate and the student project leader, stated that "the project required students to provide a real-world solution in a partnership with external customers. With the knowledge and experience of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory engineers supporting the Penn State students, we were able to accomplish much more than we initially expected."

Bilén cautioned that the effort is still in the initial stages and much more has to be done before such a network could be deployed.

"What DHS S&T was looking for is a proof of concept," he said.

The teams plan to continue the work, including identifying existing commercial hardware that could be used to create an inexpensive UHF emergency system without the need for expensive customized gear.

  • A student sets up a repeater on top of Beaver Stadium's press box at Penn State to test a portable communications system that would allow emergency responders to talk with one another.

    IMAGE: Sven Bilén

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 08, 2013