Emergency communications for civilians may improve soon, thanks to NICER


Staff member
German researchers are developing automated technology that would shift to a standardized emergency operating mode during disasters, affording the general public voice and data communications.

For years, amateur radio operators around the world (Amateur Radio Emergency Services and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service in the US) have provided voice and data communications when normal channels were nonexistent or ineffective due to some kind of man-made or natural disaster. As a former volunteer firefighter and EMT, I have witnessed experienced hams (which is slang for amateur radio operators) turn an untenable situation into a successful rescue.

However, for the most part that only covers emergency-response operations. What about the general public—people who are anxious to find out if family members and loved ones are safe and out of harm's way? A point that Professor Matthias Hollick, whose field of study is securing mobile networks, speaks to in this Technische Universitat Darmstadt press release by Boris Hänßler:

"Despite our increasing dependence on infrastructure-based networks, no back up plan exists. Civil protection and disaster assistance has even seen budget cuts in recent years. The authorities and armed forces are able to operate their communications networks for a considerable time, even in the absence of an external power supply. In contrast, the civilian population would be mostly disconnected from any means of communications."

Wanting to fill that important void in emergency communications, Hollick and his colleagues created Networked Infrastructureless Cooperation for Emergency Response (NICER), an interdisciplinary research center at TU Darmstadt. The team consists of 11 professors, three post-doctoral researchers, 16 research associates, and six associate staff members; it's a joint project involving the Universities of Kassel and Marburg. That kind of talent shows the seriousness of the group, as does the recent influx of 4.5 million Euro in funding.

On the NICER website, the scientists state the group's goal is to facilitate cooperation between the people directly affected by a large-scale crisis event, the rescue workers, and technical rescue and relief systems, such as rescue robots. To achieve their goal, the people at NICER intend to extend and automate the successful processes developed over the years by amateur radio operators.

Besides being able to communicate during an emergency, the researchers are developing ways to provide citizens with situational updates or information about relief resources—applications that must survive infrastructure outages and individual mobile device failure.