One of the design requirements for the networks that evolved into the Internet was the ability to continue functioning even if some nodes or links were shut down or destroyed during war. The packet-switched architecture that still powers the Internet today is a direct result of that: if a link stops functioning, information is automatically redirected to its intended destination. However, with tech giants occupying ever-larger swathes of the global internet, a failure at one of them could still cause major disruption. In addition, a large-scale power outage can disable large parts of the network if several nodes are connected to the same network.
Join the Wellesley Amateur Radio Society’s LoRa Birdhouse project that solves these two problems, albeit on a very small scale. Developed by radio amateurs in eastern Massachusetts, it is basically a LoRa-based general purpose packet switched network. Because it is based on open-source hardware and widely available components, the design allows anyone to set up a similar network in their own area.
The network is made up of nodes that can receive messages from their neighbors and forward them to their final destination. Each node contains a Semtech SX1276 transceiver operating in the 902-928 MHz band, which receives its data from an ESP32 microcontroller. The nodes will be strategically placed outdoors and powered by solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint and ensure resilience in the event of a power outage. To make the whole project even more environmentally friendly, each node is built into a birdhouse that provides shelter for small birds.
Users access the network through custom network nodes that connect to a PC with a USB cable. Currently, a serial terminal program is the only way to communicate with the network, although a more user-friendly interface is planned. FCC rules also require that all users (except any bird inhabitants) be licensed by amateur radio operators and that all traffic remains unencrypted. Tests have shown that a kilometer between nodes can work under the right conditions, allowing networks to be deployed over fairly large areas.
While the Birdhouse Network may not be a plug-and-play Internet replacement in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, it does provide an excellent system for experimenting with packet-switched wireless networking technology. We’ve seen similar LoRa-based networking initiatives, such as Qmesh, Cellsol, and Meshtastic, all of which provide a way to communicate wirelessly without the need for centralized hardware.