Building a Network That’s There When Others Fail

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By Mary Owen-Thomas

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Six Illinois Tech students are building a network for people to communicate during times of crisis, disaster, or other scenarios where mobile and internet networks are not working.

Vasilios “Billy” Pappademetriou, an information technology and management (ITM) adjunct industry associate professor, challenged his students to think about alternative communications networks after seeing news reports in fall 2019 of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong communicating secretly via a mesh network of cell phones using Bluetooth technology and an app.

“We are taking it a step further,” Pappademetriou says. “We asked, ‘When all else fails, what is the backup?’”

The students’ mesh network project was built with inexpensive Wi-Fi routers and open source software, and utilizes the principles of ham radio techniques that transmit signals over radio waves. A common example of a mesh network is cell phone towers that allow users to have seamless communications through a redundant network of towers; even if one is malfunctioning or goes offline, the rest take up the task.

The project started with the successful connection of six routers in their research lab on the ninth floor of IIT Tower on Illinois Tech’s Mies Campus in Chicago. Eventually, they wirelessly linked the routers along the hallways of the ninth floor, sending video signals. They were able to transmit and receive text communications farther, walking down the stairwells to the sixth floor.

Students were so enthusiastic about the possibilities of the project that they hit benchmarks months ahead of schedule, Pappademetriou says.

“This could not only be used in our country, but also could be deployed in places where they really don’t have any sort of internet infrastructure, such as developing countries,” says Travis Smith, a fourth-year ITM cybersecurity major and accelerated master’s student who serves as the student project manager. “We could give them these 10 routers and set them on a mesh network and use any cheap computers and cell phones, and they could be connected.”

Unfortunately, the project hit a snag due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were slated to present their work at this year’s ChiCyberCon, which is hosted by the School of Applied Technology, but the March event was canceled due to the pandemic.

However, their research has not stopped. Students are working from home and building an app that could be used to send text over their mesh network.

“The whole idea of introducing the app was conceived once we had the hardware in place and actually working, as we first wanted to show off a proof of concept, and we did. The app would allow people to use their cell phones to pass the data, not primarily a desktop or laptop, as we are using now,” Smith says.

After the app is created, the next steps would be an expansion of the hardware network, including adding routers in other buildings on campus, to add range. 

In fact, the project is seeking donations of new Ubiquiti routers. In an effort to recycle and be sustainable, they are using older routers, some even 10 years old, that they are modifying with custom software. However, the older models are slow when applying a lot of traffic on them. Newer routers would allow for the possible transmission of audio and video.

The research project is part of the ITM 497 Special Projects/Undergraduate Research course, during which undergraduate students spend three semesters doing research, being lab assistants, and observing course instruction under Pappademetriou.

In addition to Smith, the other students involved are William Gaylord (CIS ’21), Jacob Knific (ITM ’20), Hannah Leland (ITM ’22), Cooper Van Kampen (ITM ’21, CS ’21), and Andreas Vassilakos (ITM ’21).

Photo: Illinois Tech students Cooper van Kampen [back], Hannah Leland [right], and William Gaylord work on a mesh network project using Wi-Fi routers.