I got into Helium accidentally. I was looking for a way to find and communicate with other paragliders out back of beyond. I had participated in a Search and Rescue for a well known paraglider out in remote Nevada at the end of summer 2020.
The missing paraglider pilot (James Johnston, aka Kiwi) had GPS and a cell phone, and it still took hundreds of people, including hunters, hikers, bike riders, ATV mounted search parties, planes, helicopters, drones, and satellite imagery 30 days to find him. Here’s a 20 minute presentation on just the crowd-source satellite imagery side.
I flew up with my friend David Hunt in his small plane to help with the aerial search. We left early in the morning on the third day after Kiwi was reported missing and it became clear that the more people searching, the better.
We got bumped around in turbulent Nevada desert air for a few days before flying back to San Diego without having found the missing pilot. For almost the entire journey, David and I talked about better options for being found. Should we have a backup GPS, or was there another device or technology that could be useful? We found Recco Reflectors, which are useful if a local SAR crew has a helicopter with the technology, but…not many crews in the US have that.
Then another paraglider pilot and buddy of mine, Zach Armstrong, stumbled across this thing called LoRa. LoRa stands for LOng RAnge, and is the radio protocol used by Helium. As we searched around the internet for more on LoRa, we found two cool options. One was Meshtastic, a system designed by a paraglider that used LoRa to form mesh groups of communications nets. You and your buddies can all talk to each other across long distances using devices you build.
We built a couple devices and tested ’em out, thinking of them as a good option, but to be honest, pretty fiddly.
I found a way to 3D print cases locally, made a couple more devices and handed out my extras to local pilots to test while we flew in the mountains. They weren’t easy to use unless you really like to tinker. Not everyone does.
Then I stumbled on Helium. It came up when you looked for “LoRa” back in August 2020 on the Googs. I’d been involved with crypto before, so I wasn’t afraid of it and didn’t think it was a scam. I saw a Helium “Hotspot” down the street from my house earning a tremendous amount of HNT, or Helium Network Tokens. That caught my attention. I got onto the Helium Discord back when you could read through every thread from the start in about a week and a half, and did just that.
Serendipitously, Helium opened up a DIY program at about the same time, where you could buy the parts to make your own Helium Hotspot and onboard it onto the Network. Along with my buddy TJ Ferrara, we applied for and received “alpha codes”, then dug into how to actually use the things.
Here’s TJ getting our first one online.
Here’s TJ up on my roof, putting the finishing cable management touches on that first miner. We were so pumped to have one up and running!
Of course, I had to constantly tinker with it (it was all new and exciting), and the pole was too much for me to manage safely by myself, so I hooked my wife Lee up to the pole with a climbing harness and rope, and she patiently belayed the pole as I tilted it up and down to dial in the hotspot and antenna at the top. She’s seen my many phases of crazy, and she gamely went along with this one.
Ok, so that got us into Helium, but how does that relate to paragliding?
Well, with our first hotspot done, I set my sights on getting an antenna way out in the mountains near my favorite paragliding spot. It’d provide us a way to test Helium Network coverage and see if we could use trackers to, well, track paragliders.
We started with Helium Tabs, but those left something to be desired. Form factor = cool, Performance = Not so much. I put one on my new bike and it managed to stop tracking within about a day.
I started ordering parts to build a giant off grid setup. I was so excited about the whole thing I’d send blow-by-blow videos to my Dad.
Guided by Paul over at Tourmaline Wireless, who drilled the holes and walked me through the layout, I got the first hotspot put together and ready to hike in. Here’s Paul sussing out the best interior setup in his shop.
I got permission to place the thing on a mountain the backcountry of San Diego, then TJ & I hiked in 60+ lb backpacks filled with gear and set the thing up. Fun, and unfun. It was a giant antenna that I didn’t need, plus more solar panel and battery than was necessary, but it was my first one. I ended up having to dial the antenna gain down with software, a project that introduced to some really cool and competent people (looking at you, @jerm on Discord), and it taught me a lot about what you actually want in an antenna vs what looks cool.
With the off grid hotspot in place and providing coverage from the Mexican border up to north of Los Angeles, I figured we could start testing tracking, but I needed more rugged tracking devices. I turned to Lonestar Tracking and bought a few Digital Matter Oysters from them along with a tracking subscription plan.
So that brings us now, October 2021, a year after the Kiwi SAR, to the Red Rocks Fly In and the XRed Rocks. The Fly In is an annual gathering of paragliding and hang gliding pilots, over 300 of us! It happens up in Monroe, Utah, and is a week of sharing the skies with other free flight enthusiasts. This year, there’s something new: The X Red Rocks.
X Red Rocks (XRR) is a paragliding “hike and fly” race organized by one of my free flight heroes, Gavin McClurg. Gavin has participated in the super gnarly hike and fly race called the The Red Bull X Alps, held in (you guessed it) the Alps. He wanted to share that joy (and the joy of type 2 and 3 fun) with the rest of us back here in the US, so he put together the XRR.
In fact, it was Gavin’s movie, The Rocky Mountains Traverse, that got me into paragliding back in 2016.
Unlike the month long journey that Gavin went on, the XRR is a 3 day event where, each day you hike up into the mountains to a launch with your paraglider, unpack, unfold, and launch off the mountain, fly as far as you can and land, then pack up, hike up, unpack, unfold, and launch again until you’ve finished whatever the day’s task is.
Of course, I registered for it. 🙂
I wanted to participate, but I also wanted to combine business and pleasure, and to give back to both my free flight (paraglider and hang glider) community as well as showcase what Helium could do.
The way this event is set up is basically the reason I got into Helium; flying in remote to semi-remote areas without perfect cell coverage.
I wanted a way for my paragliding community to have a third option, maybe a last chance, after GPS & cell phones, to be tracked in case we got lost. I know that LoRa isn’t a magic pill, and that it won’t replace a Garmin inReach Mini with a global constellation of satellites, or telcos with their giant cell tower sites everywhere.
Still, it’s a way for regular people, just like you and me, to deploy a wireless network that provides actual use. That is (pardon my language) fucking radical. I love radical things.
So, with this in mind, I rallied the troops. I called Tommy at Lonestar, Matthew at Digital Matter, talked with the Helium crew about what I wanted to do and why, and all of them very generously volunteered to donate time, materials, and expertise to the project.
I’ll be bringing up 2 of my off grid hotspots, Helium is sending me a few of the off grid setups that Paul built for them as well as a bunch of trackers, Lonestar is covering tracking, and Digital Matter is providing enough trackers to cover all the rest of the pilots. If YOU want to be involved in some way, reach out!
I’ll be driving up Friday the 24th of September and will spend the weekend setting up Helium Hotspots in the mountains around Monroe. On Tuesday the 28th I’ll be giving a presentation on Helium to my paragliding community up in Richfield, UT (8 pm, swing on by!) and on Thursday the XRR kicks off. Ryan from Lonestar and Travis from Helium are coming up to help everything run smoothly and to answer questions, and hopefully to help convince free flight clubs that wherever we have a launch, we should probably add a Helium compatible hotspot to it.
I would love for you to follow along on the journey as we hike, fly, race, and use the Helium Network to demonstrate what a small, committed group of people can actually do. If you’re in Utah and want to come help out with setup, troubleshooting, lending us a Helium Hotspot, or just participating in a joyous effort, please reach out or just post to comments.
Come along for the ride!