Sandia LabNews

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


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 7×24 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)

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.

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:

  • It’s a cold winter night. The day had started out warm, almost balmy, but had turned arctic-circle mean, the way it can on a high desert night. The wind was up and the temperature was down — and dropping fast. The local volunteer search and rescue (SAR) team is called out to help locate a lost hiker in the Sandia mountains. With conditions deteriorating as fast as the snow is piling up, time is critical. How will team members communicate? How will they keep from becoming lost themselves? How will the operations center coordinate the team’s activities to make sure that they’re not working at cross-purposes?
  • High above the atmosphere, a satellite detects an ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) beacon indicating that an airplane may be down. SAR team members are called out to find the transmitter. The traditional location technique is triangulation — taking several readings from different locations with directional antennas and concentrating search efforts in the area the readings intersect. How best can SAR team members communicate their radio direction data?

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 7×24 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:

  • Pace VanDevender (9010) — Provided strong support and permission to connect to the Internet.
  • Pat Eicker (15200) — Provided a location for the equipment with much help from Bob Bickerstaff (15201), Johnny Vaughan (7000) and Joe Harris (14102).
  • Mike Eaton (9522) — Made the station a reality. He found a hardware source; obtained, configured, and installed the hardware; installed and configured the software; and coordinated with the amateur radio community.
  • Mike Sjulin (9314) and Bob Weaver (9314) — Worked the DOE approval task.
  • Mike Vahle (9300) and Len Stans (9316) — Reviewed the initial proposal.
  • Dorothy Rarick (9623), Craig Hansen (9623), and other CSU personnel — Installed the Internet drop, assisted with the hardware/software installation, and reviewed the overall system configuration.
  • Bob Park (11300) — Reviewed the proposal from a legal consideration.
  • Don Carson (12600) — Reviewed the proposal from a PR consideration.
  • Janet Ahrens (7133), Steve Weddle (7123), and Rico Johnson (7133) — Reviewed the proposal from a security perspective.
  • Jim Baremore (retired Sandia Director) — Provided the interface between Sandia and the New Mexico SAR team and called in a chip or two to get hardware donated from the private sector.
  • Brian Mileshosky (2345) — SAR team member, provided general APRS consultation.
  • Jerry Boyd (2335) — SAR team member, provided general APRS consultation.
  • Brent Hildebrand (non-Sandian, author of APRS+SA) — Provided a free copy of APRS+SA, the APRS server software in use.
  • Paul Choc (non-Sandian, developer of the MegaLink Repeater system) — Provided key hardware.
  • And Mike, who modestly describes his role as "project management."

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