The SMOS project

When disaster strikes, could we airdrop small base stations and set up cell phone communications that way?  

See the previous posting to see where that simple question took us. (The post is long but entertaining).   Kalle Pietilä asked the question  in early 2011. Answering that question became an off-time project that occupied four of us (Timo Tokkonen, Jakke Mäkelä, Niko Porjo, and Kalle Pietilä) for many evenings and weekends in 2011-2012. The previous posting described the process; this posting summarizes the idea. See the SMOS project web page for technical information.

We named the project SMOS, for “SMS Our Souls”. The core of the concept is this: by cutting away all functionality except for SMS traffic, could one develop base stations so small, robust, and low-power that they could literally be sown from the sky in case of a major catastrophe? This extremely tight specification would mean that even if the modules are not actually airdropped, they will be small enough to be hand-carried anywhere by volunteers.

We pursued this as a potentially realistic commercial project, in our off-time and under the radar. We developed sales material, technology concepts, use cases, and business calculations, pitched the idea to various places, and looked for funding sources.  By early 2012, it became clear that no traditional start-up business case existed. We decided to abandon the project (at least for the foreseeable future) due to reasons described in the previous posting.

We were then faced with two choices: pretend we never tried and hide our “failure”, or publish what we did find in case someone else finds it useful. We opted for the latter.

We are releasing the relevant material under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY), which means that others may use the findings freely (including commercial use).

Project web page: Click here.

Since we had discussions with some commercial partners, some information needs to be redacted because of confidentiality and trust reasons. Also, we are still a little behind on  cleaning up some of the technical material,  but we will get there in a week or two.

Just as we were putting the finishing touches here, we heard of a new startup called Tethr, which is trying to do very similar things. Please read the BBC article on them, and do join their mailing list. We have great hopes for them.

Below is the text of the one-pager  (pdf: SMOS 1 One-pager) that we used to open discussions on the idea. No real solutions are proposed here, just questions.


After any natural or man-made catastrophe, the first few hours and days are crucial. Before real recovery efforts can begin, it is necessary to set up a communications system to coordinate the efforts. Disaster communication systems exist for emergency officials and aid workers.

For normal citizens, mobile phone networks are becoming an increasingly useful way of communicating, as well as being a potential information source for rescue efforts. Just knowing the number of active mobile phones can allow the authorities to focus rescue efforts. Even developing countries have high mobile phone penetration, and thus the number of phones is a reasonable proxy for the number of victims. Although the batteries of mobile phones will be depleted, for the first few days the majority will still be active.

However, even mobile phone networks can be destroyed or overloaded when the catastrophe is severe enough. The SMOS Initiative is proposing a solution to enable partial mobile phone connectivity even when the normal infrastructure is not working. More specifically, it is simpler to restore text messaging (SMS) services than full voice service. An SMS service would allow victims to communicate with their families. At least as importantly, it would allow emergency organizations to receive and send information straight to the victims.

If it is accepted that the temporary network only transmits SMS traffic, then the required hardware could be simplified and miniaturized compared to normal cellular telephone base stations. The target of the SMOS Initiative is to define a “base station” small and rugged enough to be aerially deployed, so that one volunteer with a private pilot’s license and a small airplane could quickly restore telecommunications over a huge area. Even if aerial dropping is not possible, the small size means that they are easily portable by other means.

Once the base stations are dropped, they automatically form a network for mobile phones to transmit and receive SMS traffic. The base stations are powered by batteries that give the station a lifetime of about a week (after which normal wireless infrastructure is assumed to be in place).

The proposal still has multiple open technical issues, and the economic, logistical, and political challenges are also formidable. The idea is therefore presented as a discussion paper, aiming to open debate on whether such a system could in fact be practical and useful.

Note (April 2012): The project has been discontinued in its present form, as no commercially feasible way of implementing it has been found.