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Vol. 52, No. 18 September 8, 2000
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

Keeping track of the trackers: New ham radio/Internet link helps keep order in search-and-rescue missions

By Mike Pendley and Bill Murphy

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A couple of hundred bucks' worth of old computer and radio equipment sitting on top of a metal cabinet tucked away in a tiny second-floor supply room at Sandia's Robotics building could someday help save lives.

[Solar collector]
TWEAKING THE SYSTEM -- Mike Pendley checks out the APRS laptop computer in the supply room at the Robotics building. The computer provides the interface between APRS-equipped radios and the Internet, via Sandia's 7x24 Internet connection. The laptop, a radio, and modem found a temporary home atop a storage cabinet; by the time you read this they'll be housed in a floor-level wooden cabinet. (Photos by Randy Montoya)

How? That's a story about a bunch of Sandians pitching in, using their technical and organizational skills to provide an exceptional service in the community interest.

First: imagine a couple of scenarios:

A solution at hand

There is a solution to these challenges, one that validates the original vision of the FCC in creating the amateur radio service and encouraging ham operators to develop innovative technical solutions to problems that might pass under the radar of commercial developers.

According to Sandia engineer and ham radio enthusiast Mike Pendley (6524), a key piece of technology used by search-and-rescue groups is APRS (Automatic Position and Reporting System) -- a communication protocol that allows ham radio operators to broadcast their GPS-obtained position, compass bearings, status, and messages to other operators in near-real-time.

SAR members in New Mexico regularly use APRS to manage field assets during missions, says retired Sandia Director Jim Baremore, now active in local search-and-rescue operations.. APRS is unusually well-suited to use in New Mexico, he says, because of the state's extensive repeater infrastructure. The repeaters relay low-power transmissions from radios in the field through high-power transmitters located on mountaintops to their final destination -- perhaps a rescue mission coordination center. In fact, Jim says, New Mexico has one of the most extensive and well-run amateur repeater systems in the world.

One piece missing

As impressive as the New Mexico repeater array is, though, until recently one piece of potentially very useful infrastructure was missing, Mike says: A way for non-amateur radio operators or amateur radio operators who don't own APRS equipment to interact with each other. Such a system would increase the pool of volunteers available to help in emergencies and provide backup communication services. This missing piece, Mike says, was a reliable, near 7x24 connection between the radio APRS world and the Internet APRS world. This link would allow anyone with an Internet connection and a Web browser to receive near-real-time APRS information from radio guys and gals out in the field.

Enter a champion

The good news was that new technology didn't need to be developed-- it only needed to be assembled and installed. To make that happen, though, it needed a champion.

Enter Sandia.

Mike, who was familiar with APRS's unique potential to help in SAR missions, approached Sandia CIO Pace Van Devender (9010) in early April with the concept of setting up an APRS station somewhere at Sandia and tie it to the Sandia Internet connection. The station would be funded by the amateur radio community and managed by Sandia ham radio operators on a volunteer basis. Once he understood the life-saving potential of the proposal, Mike says, Pace got on board. He encouraged Mike to develop a plan and secure the necessary approvals.

When Sandia Intelligent Systems and Robotics Center 15200 Director Pat Eicker solved the last remaining big problem -- a location for the station -- "things snowballed," says Mike. The project quickly developed into a team effort with membership spanning the Labs. Here's a rundown on the names of contributions of the Sandians who made the APRS/Sandia connection a reality:

Fine-tuned and ready

The APRS station became operational in test mode on July 26.

Stability was a major issue at first, say APRS team members. The system didn't seem to be able to operate for more than a few days before crashing. However, after tuning several of the many system operating parameters -- for instance, tweaking downward the size of the system's data storage archive -- the team was able to stabilize the system.

Team members say the system is "now quite reliable and ready for real-world use."

Last modified: September 13, 2000

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