One of the design requirements for networks that evolved into the Internet was the ability to continue operating even if some nodes or links were disabled or destroyed during war. The packet-switched architecture that still powers the Internet today is a direct result of this: if a link fails, information is automatically rerouted to its intended destination. However, with tech giants occupying ever larger shares of the global internet, an outage of one of them could still cause major disruption. Additionally, a large-scale power outage can disable large parts of the network if multiple nodes are connected to the same network.
Enter the Wellesley Amateur Radio Society’s LoRa Birdhouse project which solves both of these problems, albeit on a very small scale. Developed by amateur radio operators in eastern Massachusetts, it is essentially a general purpose LoRa-based packet switching network. As it is based on open source hardware and commonly available components, its design allows anyone to set up a similar network in their own area.
The network is built from nodes that can receive messages from their neighbors and transmit them to their final destination. Each node contains a Semtech SX1276 transceiver operating in the 902-928 MHz band, which obtains its data from an ESP32 microcontroller. The nodes are strategically placed outdoors and are powered by solar panels to reduce their environmental footprint, as well as provide resilience in the event of a power outage. To make the whole project even more ecological, each node is integrated into a nesting box which shelters the small birds.
Users can access the network through modified network nodes which can be connected to a PC using a USB cable. Currently, a serial terminal program is the only way to interact with the network, although a more user-friendly interface is in the planning stages. FCC rules also require that all users (except avian residents) be licensed amateur radio operators and that all traffic remain unencrypted. Tests have shown that a kilometer between nodes can operate under good conditions, allowing networks to be deployed over reasonably large areas.
Although the Birdhouse Network is not a plug-and-play Internet replacement in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, it provides an excellent system for experimenting with packet-switched wireless networking technology. We’ve seen similar LoRa-based network initiatives like Qmesh, Cellsol, and Meshtastic, all of which provide a way to communicate wirelessly without requiring centralized hardware.