S.O.S App Turns Smartphone Into Emergency Beacon

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We have all this amazing technology at hand and yet when disaster strikes, communications get disrupted, hampering rescue efforts. A new system in development would turn smartphones into smart emergency beacons, helping responders find victims.

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Computer scientists in Germany are currently testing out a lightweight, ad-hoc S.O.S. system for smartphones that would work even if network service in the area goes down. The team, led by Amro Al-Akkad, a research associate at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology, was inspired by events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

They noticed that wireless network names alone can be used to convey short messages. For example “Pay4YourOwnInternet” and “ThanksForNotSmokingOnTheBalcony,” Al-Akkad told me.

He and his colleagues, including Alexander Boden and Leonardo Ramirez, decided to leverage those names, called Service Set Identifiers or SSID. Their system turns smartphones into wireless network beacons (video) that don’t need existing cellular networks or public Wi-Fi. Victims can use their unique network IDs to convey brief messages like “I’m stuck inside bus” to first responders in the immediate area who carry devices scanning for that info.

So far the tech has been used by firefighters at the Hagerbach Test Gallery in Switzerland, and more recently during a terrorism test scenario in Norway. Al-Akkad said another test is being planned for Austria. He’s presenting a paper about the system (abstract) this week in Toronto at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

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Challenges still remain before the system could be integrated into smartphones, including scalability, standardization, security, battery power and signal strength. Al-Akkad said his team is also trying an inverted setup where victims’ phones scan around to pick up first responder beacons messages saying “I’m here to help you.” One of the best messages you could get in a dire situation.

Credit: Reinier Timmer

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