January 28, 2011, 11:05 AM — A research project aimed at allowing mobile phones to communicate without traditional infrastructure has attracted phone manufactures and not-for-profits looking to leverage the technology.
Paul Gardner-Stephen, who co-founded the Serval project, first demonstrated the mesh network technology while experimenting with the use of Wi-Fi transmitters on phones to carry VoIP conversations.
The makeshift capability is capable of transmitting a few hundred metres, but could conceivably harness other phones and inexpensive Wi-Fi transmitters in the area to provide more coverage, even if hundreds of kilometres away from a mobile phone tower.
"We are actually carrying voice over that but in a way that doesn't need to go back to a central repository anywhere," Flinders University researcher, Paul Gardner-Stephen, told ABC Local Radio program, AM, at the time.
Initial expectations were that the experimental mobile technology would be used in cases of a natural disaster, allowing rescue workers to communicate with each other and to head office, either by utilising each others' mobile phones as transmitters themselves or by deploying portable Wi-Fi transmitters by plane.
Presenting at linux.conf.au 2011 this week, Gardner-Stephen said community response had already surpassed expectations, with the Australian Red Cross voicing enthusiasm at the possibilities.
"They said during the Victorian bushfires - and I was flabbergasted when I heard this - they lost contact with crews for three days in the midst of the bushfires," he said. "That's one of the things that this technology can work to."
Gardner-Stephen said one phone manufacturer had also registered interest, though continuing talks with carriers around improving existing mobile infrastructure in rural areas were non-productive.
The Serval project has garnered $1000 in funding from The Awesome Foundation while Gardner-Stephen gained a three-year fellowship with Flinders University, allowing him to work on the project full-time.
The research project, which now counts seven people among its members, has continued to work on improving the technology, with plans to move away from data-heavy SIP voice protocols to an open source standard developed in-house.
The software is soon expected to work across all Android devices as well as iOS, Windows Mobile and other platforms, though the project is also looking to develop 'Batphones' that work over unlicensed frequencies rather than Wi-Fi.