Teams of engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas are in the midst of developing an emergency communication network that can maintain operation during natural disasters and provide critical warnings and geographical information to people affected by the disasters, according to an article on

Researchers are calling the system an emergency "mesh," made up of a network of nodes that blanket a geographical area. Similar to servers, each solar-powered node contains data on geographical information that can be downloaded or communicated node-to-node, the article says. If a node fails due to a lack of energy or the likelihood of extreme environmental conditions in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the mesh will automatically redistribute data to maintain service.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to save human lives,” said Nilanjan Banerjee, assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering, in the article. “Deployment of this system could warn people to get out of harm’s way and could help emergency services personnel reach victims much faster. This last part is critically important because we know that many deaths occur in the minutes and hours after a disaster strikes."

Users would receive this emergency information on popular devices such as mobile phones, personal digital assistants, tablets and laptops, the article says. The geographical information provided will include a map, similar to Google maps, showing areas heavily affected by a disaster as well as route around those areas, often to an aid station or hospital. 

“It is also important that the system communicates using popular, ubiquitous devices, because during these chaotic and highly stressful moments, people need to rely on something that is user-friendly and already familiar to them," said Banerjee in the article.

According to Banerjee, several issues are still being resolved before a fully functioning system is deployed. The nodes have to be able to run on very low energy, due to the small size of the solar panels, and the engineers have to decide on the geographical placement of nodes to ensure that optimal connectivity can be maintained, the article says. 

By the end of 2012, the researchers plan to deploy a 40-node mesh in downtown Fayetteville, Ark., to address the practical issues and test a combination of hardware and software, the article says. 

The researchers received a $485,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the system.