Cool Use Case – Helium Mesh Network for Paragliding Safety

7 min read

We loved this use case review and generally-great story from GristleKing. Read on to hear his story here:

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.

I hand­ed out the devices to local paraglid­ers, and we test­ed them. They worked (I’ve writ­ten about these tests over here.)

So that brings us now, 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!

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