Home & Office

Linux Foundation open sources disaster-relief IoT firmware: Project OWL

When disasters happen, communication can collapse, and things can get even worse. Project OWL's DuckLink IoT devices will make it fast and easy to restore communications between those in need as well as first responders.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Have you ever been in a disaster? I have, and you probably have, too. 

One of the worst things about them is that, when you need help, you can't get it because communication links fall apart. That's when The Linux Foundation Project OWL's IoT device firmware comes in handy.

Project OWL (Organization, Whereabouts, and Logistics) creates a mesh network of Internet of Things (IoT) devices called DuckLinks. These Wi-Fi-enabled devices can be deployed or activated in disaster areas to quickly re-establish connectivity and improve communication between first responders and civilians in need. 

In OWL, a central portal connects to solar- and battery-powered, water-resistant DuckLinks. These create a Local Area Network (LAN). In turn, these power up a Wi-Fi captive portal using low-frequency Long-range Radio (LoRa) for Internet connectivity. LoRA has a greater range, about 10km, than cellular networks.

LoRa also avoids the danger of having its bandwidth throttled by cellular carriers. That, by the way, actually happened in 2018 in Northern California's Mendocino Complex Fire when Verizon slowed the first responders' internet

DuckLinks then provides an emergency mesh network to all Wi-Fi enabled devices in range. This can be used both by people needing help and first responders trying to get a grip on the situation with data analytics. Armed with this information, they can then formulate an action plan.

Ham radio has long also served this purpose. But Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) personnel require training and they may not be immediately available to help in some areas. DuckLinks are meant to be easy to deploy and use.

You don't actually need a DuckLink device. The open-source OWL firmware can quickly turn a cheap wireless device into a DuckLink using the -- I swear I'm not making this up -- ClusterDuck Protocol. This is a mesh network node, which can hook up to any other near-by Ducks. 

OWL is more than just hardware and firmware. It's also a cloud-based analytic program. The OWL Data Management Software can be used to facilitate organization, whereabouts, and logistics for disaster response.

Project OWL has an interesting origin story. It was the global winner of David Clark Cause and IBM's inaugural Call for Code Global Challenge. The Call for Code Global Challenge encourages and fosters the creation of practical applications built on open-source software. This five-year, $30 million global initiative is a rallying cry for developers to use their open-source skills to drive positive, long-lasting global change.

"When developing technologies that can have a direct impact on human life, it's more important than ever to bring the largest possible global community of developers together working with an open governance model," said Michael Dolan, The Linux Foundation's VP of Strategic Programs, in a statement. "Project OWL's technology solution is providing better information and analytics and enabling quicker distribution of resources and care where and when it's needed most. We're proud to support such a worthy cause."

Related Stories:

Editorial standards