Mouser Interviews Uzi Hanuni, Developer of High-Tech Communication Solutions Invaluable in Saving Thai Soccer Team
For more than two weeks, the world was captivated by the daring rescue of twelve boys and their soccer coach who were trapped by rising flood waters more than a mile inside a cave in Thailand. After 17 days of search and rescue involving more than 100 rescuers working inside the cave, all the boys and their coach were successfully brought to safety.
This amazing rescue was made possible by contributed equipment and the highly coordinated efforts of volunteers from around the world. One of the great challenges facing the rescuers was establishing and maintaining communications inside the cave. That regular radio equipment would not work in that environment because radio signals were blocked by cave walls and water from the monsoon season posed additional challenges.
Communications were only made possible by special radios generously donated by Maxtech Networks, a specialist in critical communications. This technology—known as MaxMesh—freed rescuers from the constraints of traditional communication methods and enabled them to connect, share, collaborate, and ultimately help bring the team to safety.
Mouser Electronics spoke with Uzi Hanuni, founder and CEO of Maxtech Networks, to discuss their technology used in this rescue.
Mouser: Thank you for speaking with us, Uzi. How did you decide to become involved in the rescue?
Uzi Hanuni: Two days after the event, our distributor in Thailand called me and told me of the situation, and said he thought our technology was a good fit for the challenge. Without thinking for a second, I sent my engineer and about 17 radios to help the rescue teams. I worried about the children in that cave, and I thought our technology could mean the difference between saving and losing lives in the rescue team and in the cave itself. I decided to step up because this is our company’s mission: To provide communications for critical mission resolution whenever and wherever regular infrastructure fails. Knowing how time sensitive this was and that our protocol was the one that could make the difference was what inspired us.
M: What was the scene like on the ground when you arrived in Thailand?
UH: When our people arrived, rescuers were using regular two-way radios and taking those into the cave; however, two-way radios need line of sight, and without line of sight, they cannot communicate. The environment inside the cave is very complicated with a lot of turns and walls and things that break the communication. When we came with our technology, we showed them that Maxmesh communication could pass through those obstacles. We gave them our radios and our engineer was there. They needed more relay points inside the cave, so we programmed the radios to have more relays. Our basic technology has up to eight relays, but we programmed it for 11 relays so rescuers could reach further into the cave…to that critical point where the children were trapped.
M: That’s really amazing. How exactly do your radios do this, and what do you mean by relays?
UH: Our technology is based on creating a mesh network of software-defined radios (SDRs). SDRs are radio communication systems implanted using software on a (PC) or embedded system. This SDR uses a cognitive algorithm that continuously optimizes communication between all the radios in the network through automatic frequency hops in real time. Every time you switch on a radio, it automatically joins the network. Each Maxmesh radio is also a relay, and the intelligent frequency modulation algorithms are built into the radios. Our radios can transmit video, voice, and data simultaneously.
We also have a Mini Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) Express card that you can plug into a PC; the PC recognizes that there’s a network interface card so you can network PCs with radios. You just put it into your computer, and suddenly this computer becomes a node in the mesh system and enables you to transmit your voice through it to other radios. You can talk from one computer to another through this device. We are the only company that builds a mesh SDR platform that doesn’t use a global positioning system (GPS) or any atomic clock to synchronize frequency hopping. That’s how our smart radios can do all this magic.
M: What makes communications so difficult in critical situations like this and how do your radios overcome that?
UH: In this case, the cave walls blocked signals from radios typically used by first responders. Also, it is very important to select the right frequency for the situation. We adjusted the frequency on our radios to the best frequency for that environment, which was at 2400–2485MHz (license-free ISM band). Our technology can support from 200MHz–6GHz. We also have a very high frequency (VHF), which is 30–300MHz in the radios, if you need it.
There were other challenges too. When you arrive at a big rescue like this or at the scene of floods, tornadoes, or terror attacks where most of the infrastructure has collapsed, there is a lot of radio noise. There are special forces there—a lot of first responders—and they all bring their own radios and their own frequency transmissions. They all have their communications officers who decide which is the best frequency to cover their operations. It’s a very noisy environment. The only way to have reliable communications is to continuously analyze the spectrum and automatically modulate frequencies. Our radios do that, and they are always transmitting short distances to the nearest node in the mesh.
M: One thing that really sets you apart from other critical communications systems is the network algorithm you use to optimize communications in the mesh network. Can you tell us more about that?
UH: Yes, sure. So there are basically two types of mesh network algorithms. Most of the mesh solutions that we know in the world are for fixed-location mesh that don’t demand a lot of management or bandwidth-consuming traffic for managing the network. A mesh-for-mobile network is a completely different story. You need a lot of management, and most of the time it consumes most of the bandwidth. Just to be clear, typically 75 percent of a mobile mesh networks’ bandwidth is for management, and only 25 percent is for payload. We have turned that around. In our technology, 75 percent is payload for the user, and only 25 percent is for management. And in that way, and using very sophisticated mathematical algorithms from game theory, we can have an agile, flexible, dynamic mesh solution that is very efficient.
M: The way you use frequency modulation to assure continuous communication of voice, data, and video, it sounds like you use very dense bandwidth to accomplish this. Is that the case?
UH: It is a dense frequency spectrum, and we use multiple waveforms. We have a narrow band and broadband. So it very much depends. If you want to transmit video, we use broadband. Our broadband is 1.5MHz, and we can go to 2MHz. We have narrow band, which is 25kHz, and we have medium band, which is 384kHz. So we have a whole range of bands and modulations. If we want the network to transmit voice only, you press a button, and it will transmit only voice and pictures but not streaming video. It’s a very efficient mesh.
The voice is not voice-over-IP (VOIP). It’s critical voice that uses our proprietary protocol, so the quality of the voice is much better. For engineers, we have the mini PCI Express card, which is a 2.4GHz radio with a field programmable gate array (FPGA), so they can develop their own mesh scenario. The spectrum is very dense, so you need to build techniques that are capable of listening to the spectrum and selecting the best modulation for that particular moment. We build cognitive analytics into the radio. This is very, very important so that our radios know to analyze the nearby spectrum and to define what is the best frequency and modulation at any moment. What we have is a self-forming, self-healing mesh SDR platform that works above ground or underground, with no need for GPS synchronization. It’s also low power consumption, so it gets long service on one charge.
M: No need for GPS synchronization?
UH: That’s correct. In a mesh network, devices communicate with other devices through other devices in the network. But most of the devices as we know them need GPS for synchronization because it’s the most accurate clock available. We don’t need GPS, and when you don’t need GPS, you can have synchronized resilient communication inside caves, tunnels, parking lots, anywhere indoors and outdoors. This is very important.
M: You have a tremendous amount going on in such a small package, and I know a lot of it has to do with sophisticated electronic components. Can you share with us some of the key components inside your radios?
UH: Our technology can be capsulated in various forms. The Mini PCI Express is our own technology, only it has an FPGA. This is the key fundamental component. We are using the Analog Device’s AD9364 chip for communications. This chip is a high performance, highly integrated radio frequency (RF) Agile transceiver. In addition, we are also using Samsung’s ARTIK™ 7, which is a module that offers great performance for high-end gateways with local processing and analytics to improve latency and responsiveness. With the ARTIK™ 7 is an Intel Altera Cyclone® III FPGA. We use a low noise amplifier (LNA), as well as a number of other components.
M: Can you tell us a little about the genesis behind Maxtech Networks. How did it come to be?
UH: It began for me on September 11th with the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. I saw first responders entering the building with no communication because the tower collapsed and their radio antennas were damaged. Many of those first responders lost their lives due to lack of communication. In that moment, it came to me that in the 21st century, we must solve this issue of losing lives because of communications breakdowns. And that was the moment I decided I would devote my life to solving this. I thought the technology we needed to develop had to work automatically so that you switch on the radio and suddenly it’s connected to whoever needs it. Peer-to-peer groups, multicast, unicast, broadcast, whatever you want, and you have it there with no need to preconfigure the radios. This is the most important thing: First responders are trained to save lives not configure radios. They cannot be communication engineers, too. Everything had to work automatically. It took us a few years to develop the sophisticated algorithm and the technology that works indoors, outdoors, underground, above ground, in all places automatically with no human interference or involvement.
M: That is an impressive vision of building this simple, reliable communication technology. How do you use that vision to feed what you’re doing in all your products and your technology development?
UH: The MaxTech vision is to use our technology to save lives. Our top-level engineers use their ingenuity to create dynamic, simple-to-use tools to serve that vision. It means we focus on making everything automatically usable. First responders and soldiers need to concentrate on their mission, not on whether the communication is working.
Reliable, automatic, user-friendly communication is what would have made the difference to those first responders at 9/11. It’s what made the difference in Thailand. Our vision is to bring those rescue teams and the people they serve, home.
M: Uzi, congratulations. We’re so grateful for you and your company and what you did to help rescue the Thai soccer team. Thank you so much for participating in this call. We appreciate you very much.
UH: Thank you very much.