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Vodafone is trialling mobile networks that can be taken anywhere

Vodafone and Police Search and Rescue (SAR) have teamed up to create moving mobile networks that can be carried aboard rescue helicopters – allowing people even in remote areas to call for help.

“Search and Rescue Network” creates an area of mobile phone coverage beneath a search helicopter as it flies overhead, giving rescuers the ability to communicate with cell phones below where they are flying. A prototype was recently trialled in the Hunua Ranges – a 15,000-square-kilometre area of bush near South Auckland popular with trampers, campers and holiday makers, and where there is little to no mobile coverage normally.

Auckland SAR coordinator for Police, Sergeant Dene Duthie, is pretty excited about the possibilities. “It is very exciting to have a two-way communications system in a zero coverage area that actually lets us communicate directly with a missing person. There have been a number of cases in the past where technology could have saved us time, money and potentially lives. We are looking forward to this going further.”    

The idea for Search and Rescue Network came after American tourists Rachel and Carolyn Lloyd were rescued in the Tararua Ranges in May 2016. The mother and daughter had been missing for several days before a rescue helicopter spotted their “HELP” sign laid out in rocks on the ground. 

Vodafone technology director Tony Baird elaborates. “After watching the Lloyds' story we figured there must be a way Vodafone innovation could help SAR teams locate missing people faster,” he says. “With this innovation, it’s like we’re creating a searchlight across the bush using a mobile signal. We’re really keen to keep working with SAR to get this technology to a stage where it could be used in real-life search and rescue operations.”

In its current form, the Search and Rescue Network detects a cell phone’s ping – a signal mobile phones emit when they are attempting to connect with a nearby cell site. Once the ping is detected by the equipment inside the helicopter, it shows up on an on-board computer screen, giving SAR teams a narrowed search area to locate a missing person.

When they hear the helicopter overhead, a missing person on the ground can check for signal bars on their cell phone and make an emergency call to 111, which is then answered by rescue crews inside the helicopter. The missing person can then communicate with the helicopter crew via their cell phone – providing crucial information such as their condition, any landmarks nearby, or other information about their location. This can then be shared with rescue crews on the ground to help direct their search efforts.

Compatible with Vodafone SIM cards and SIM cards from other providers – including international SIM cards – the helicopter’s altitude determines the size of the mobile coverage area. For example, at 300 metres above ground, the coverage area can be up to 4.5 square kilometres. At 100 metres, the coverage area can be up to 1.5 square kilometres.

The Search and Rescue Network prototype is the latest “zero coverage” innovation from Vodafone designed to support Kiwi emergency services teams operating in remote and isolated areas. In October 2015 Vodafone demonstrated the “Nokia Network in a Box” and “Z-Car” zero coverage solutions, which aim to help first response teams rapidly establish 4G connectivity within minutes of arriving on-site.