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Helium Deployed: The Network In Action

Our pilot project is com­plete, and boy have we learned a ton from this one! While many are still focus­ing on earn­ing HNT for Heli­um Hotspot deploy­ments, the obvi­ous move for those of us inter­est­ed in longevi­ty is actu­al­ly USING the Network.

Over the course of a week, sup­port­ed by Tom­my and Ryan at Lon­es­tar Tracking, Matthew at Dig­i­tal Mat­ter, Travis at Heli­um, and Jere­my C (@jerm on Dis­cord), I deployed 2 off-grid Heli­um Hotspots high in the moun­tains of Utah (one at over 8,000′ and one above 11,000′) to track 30+ paraglid­ers as they flew dur­ing the annu­al Red Rocks Fly In as well as raced dur­ing the inau­gur­al X Red Rocks Hike & Fly race.

It start­ed with the usu­al last minute scram­ble to get every­thing ready for a big project. The night before I was out in the shop cut­ting masts and prep­ping enclo­sures to make sure I had every­thing ready for a big week! Dur­ing the past year, I’ve learned a bunch about get­ting these things out in the wild. The lat­est improve­ment I learned from a client (thanks Dave H!) was using these lit­tle tripods for a “plant it any­where” set­up that’s easy to car­ry.

When you get where you’re going, just fas­ten the tripods into the ground with long lag bolts and you’re set!

The track­ers I used were Dig­i­tal Mat­ter Oys­ter track­ers, about 160 grams and the size of a few phones stacked on top of each oth­er. The advan­tages these track­ers have is that there aren’t any but­tons to turn off or on, the bat­tery life is mea­sured from weeks to years, and they’re pret­ty rugged. Orig­i­nal­ly designed to track vehi­cles, they were an excel­lent step in the direc­tion of track­ing far less pre­dictable things. A paraglid­er has the entire sky with­in which to move.

I arrived late Fri­day night into Mon­roe, Utah, then met up the next morn­ing with Sta­cy Whit­more, pres­i­dent of the local fly­ing club, CUASA. We jumped in my truck (which is pret­ty easy to pick out in a crowd) and head­ed up to place the two Heli­um Hotspots, one at Cove Launch, and one on top of Mon­roe Peak.

Cove was first up, and after a 40 minute dri­ve up a rough road, we arrived at a tru­ly glo­ri­ous place to put a hotspot. With a view of the Sevi­er Val­ley to the north and south, it was an excel­lent first step. 

As you can see in the video above, these 2 hotspots weren’t the only ones pro­vid­ing cov­er­age. Since pilots can get up to 18,000′ (the legal lim­it) the track­ers have a clear line of sight..everywhere. We were see­ing 80+ mile sen­sor com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the gate­ways, which is impressive!

With the gate­ways set up, it was time to start flying! 

As I hand­ed out track­ers to paraglid­ers and watched their progress through the sky, a few things became clear. 

First, the Net­work works. While the tech can be com­pli­cat­ed and the whole thing is not yet push-a-but­ton easy, it does work. That’s rad.

Sec­ond, the deploy­ment pat­tern of Hotspots becomes far more impor­tant when you start to opti­mize for Net­work cov­er­age and not just earn­ings. I jumped at the first two loca­tions because both were high and had great views. It worked, but there were plen­ty of cov­er­age holes that I could’ve filled in with a dif­fer­ent pat­tern. When I cov­er this event next year, I’ll use 2 or 3 more hotspots and place them in a ring around the val­ley rather than on just one side. I’ll also use Kudzu to esti­mate cov­er­age, which was some­thing I’d want­ed to do but ran out of time.

Third, using vehi­cle track­ers to track paraglid­ers is an excel­lent start, but free flight pilots in gen­er­al (paraglid­er and hang glid­ers) need a few options that we had­n’t con­fig­ured in the track­ers. Here’s an exam­ple of the day in the life of a track­er, from the time I hand­ed it out in the LZ (land­ing zone, which is where pilots in Mon­roe usu­al­ly meet to start the day) all the way to the end of the day when the pilot went back to their hotel.

Before going fur­ther, I want to make it clear that this was a pilot pro­gram. This is NOT what the end prod­uct of a free flight track­er will look like. The goal of this project was to see what was pos­si­ble and where we need­ed to improve.

Most of the improve­ments can come from bet­ter Hotspot place­ment and con­fig­u­ra­tion set­tings with­in the track­er. Some improve­ments spe­cif­ic to free flight will come from hard­ware mod­i­fi­ca­tions. We start­ed off with 2 minute inter­vals and even­tu­al­ly got ’em down to 30 sec­ond inter­vals by the end of the week. While that push­es out more *poten­tial* data points, if you don’t have cov­er­age from a Hotspot it does­n’t mat­ter how much data your sen­sor is push­ing out; it won’t get seen. 

A bunch of things can go wrong. The inter­val is impor­tant; if you set it for an hour you’ll have a bat­tery life mea­sured in years, but for a 2 hour flight you’ll only get 2 data points, like this:

Here’s anoth­er pilot who did that same flight but had a track­er with much short­er inter­vals. You can see the dif­fer­ence it makes!

The con­fig­u­ra­tion set­tings pre­sent­ed an addi­tion­al set of chal­lenges. For paraglid­ing, I want­ed a track­er that could be found if the pilot either had an emer­gency and land­ed con­scious (and able to push a but­ton), or land­ed and was uncon­scious. These track­ers were set up for long bat­tery life, so once they stopped mov­ing for a peri­od of time they went to sleep. That’s very use­ful for track­ing vehi­cles on land, but not very use­ful for paraglid­ers fly­ing in adven­ture country.

Keep in mind that these track­ers only report their posi­tions if they can com­mu­ni­cate with a Hotspot. No Hotspot, no comms.

Going to sleep once move­ment has stopped presents the issue of not being able to be found if a pilot crash­es and is uncon­scious or just not able to move. The solu­tions for solv­ing that could be cre­at­ing an on/off but­ton for the track­er so that you can con­serve bat­tery at home, when you don’t need to be tracked, but push out sig­nals every 2 min­utes when you go flying.

The rad aspect of cre­at­ing off grid Heli­um Hotspots is that you could put a Hotspot in a heli­copter and fly a search pat­tern with a very wide “bub­ble” of cov­er­age. As long as track­ers are on and ping­ing, you’re very like­ly to find them. This cre­ates anoth­er poten­tial solu­tion for “crash detec­tion” in track­ers where they’d con­tin­ue to ping at 1 or 2 minute inter­vals if they detect­ed a sud­den stop­ping of movement.

Final­ly, this project brought to light the use­ful­ness of an “emer­gency” but­ton, just like you have on an inReach mini.

You might ask, “What’s the point of hav­ing anoth­er device that does the same thing?” Well, there are three good rea­sons. First, when work­ing in high con­se­quence envi­ron­ments, a basic rule of safe­ty is “Two is one and one is none.” Hav­ing a back­up can be the dif­fer­ence between being found with­in hours of a crash and not being found for days.

Sec­ond, because these two devices work using dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies, they offer a wider spec­trum of “find­abil­i­ty.” While an inReach can be found by com­mu­ni­cat­ing with satel­lites, if it’s deep in a canyon and does­n’t have a clear “view” of a satel­lite, it becomes less use­ful. A LoRa track­er, on the oth­er hand, puts out an omni­di­rec­tion­al bea­con at a min­i­mum range of 60 meters in dense brush and a max range of 80+ miles with clear line of sight. A helo car­ry­ing a mobile Heli­um-com­pat­i­ble Hotspot can fly around and pro­vide a bub­ble of fair­ly focused cov­er­age, great­ly speed­ing up the track­ing possibilities.

Third, as grue­some as it sounds, if you auger in and hit hard, the impact is like­ly to break not only your bones but also the elec­tron­ic track­ing devices you’re car­ry­ing. If those elec­tron­ic devices are on oppo­site sides of your body, it is more like­ly that at least one of them will not bear the full force of the impact and will remain track­able. I know, ugly and ter­ri­ble, but also practical.

Prac­ti­cal­i­ty is the watch­word here. The long term health of the Net­work is based upon the usabil­i­ty of it. Projects like these, where we put sen­sors and gate­ways (Hotspots) out into the wild and see how they do, go a long way towards all of us lean­ing how to use this fan­tas­ti­cal­ly cool tech­nol­o­gy to improve our lives. 

If you’d like to see the pre­sen­ta­tion I gave at the 2021 Red Rocks Fly In about Heli­um for paraglid­ers, here it is:

My entire involve­ment with Heli­um start­ed with a lost paraglid­er, but find­ing lost paraglid­ers is just a begin­ning. I am super pumped to be on this jour­ney and to share as much as I can with you, so that togeth­er we can build a superbly use­ful tool for what­ev­er prob­lem you want to solve. Here’s to safe fly­ing, to use­ful Net­works, and to advanc­ing our knowl­edge and under­stand­ing that this giant new realm of IoT oppor­tu­ni­ty avail­able to us all.

To life!

Resources

Feel free to reach out to any of these com­pa­nies for help with your projects, and of course, tell ’em the Gris­tle King sent ya! 🙂

Lon­es­tar Track­ing - Based out of Texas, Lon­es­tar makes it super easy to buy devices and start track­ing what­ev­er you’d like.

Dig­i­tal Mat­ter devices

Heli­um Network

CUASA — Cen­tral Utah Air Sports Asso­ci­a­tion — If you have hotspots you want to place off grid, this crew is way open to hav­ing you put them up on high sites around the Sevi­er Val­ley. Reach out to Sta­cy or Jeff to see if you can work with them.

If you’re look­ing for work in the Heli­um ecosys­tem, please check out this rad project I’m a part of called Heli­um Jobs. You can post and find jobs there, help sup­port the ecosys­tem by mak­ing it eas­i­er to con­nect pro­fes­sion­al­ly, and let the world know that YOU exist and want to help con­tribute with­in the Net­work. Rock on!

3 thoughts on “Helium Deployed: The Network In Action”

  1. Inspir­ing. Dream­ing of the day when I fin­ish set­ting up my heli­um min­ers (for good) and start to think off, how can I, using Heli­um net­work, make oth­er peo­ple’s life easier/better. 🙂

  2. Great job Nik! Your pas­sion shows and it is awe­some that it is aligned with help­ing keep peo­ple safe. Good job in the pre­sen­ta­tion video, you do a good job of explain­ing what can be a com­pli­cat­ed sub­ject stick­ing to the “why” the group would care.

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