Amid back-to-back weeks of deadly hurricanes, people in danger zones have turned to apps and communication devices that they might have had little use for before.
One of those tools, Zello, climbed to the No. 1 spot in apps stores after Hurricane Harvey. Now, a communication device that is used by military operators and disaster-relief workers is also gaining traction: goTenna Mesh.
goTenna’s 32-year-old chief executive and co-founder Daniela Perdomo said she saw a spike in sales as Irma approached, a development she attributes to people watching Harvey and then planning for the possibility of being without electricity.
“Central connectivity does amazing things, but you become very aware of its limits when all of the sudden a hurricane comes to town,” Perdomo said. “Each goTenna device is sort of like a super-smart 21st-century baby between a walkie-talkie and a smartphone with the reliability of the radio communications.”
What makes goTenna Mesh unique is that it allows people to create a special network to stay in touch with others when telecommunications fail.
During a natural disaster, for example, goTenna Mesh can be paired with a user’s phone over Bluetooth, giving access to text and GPS via the goTenna app. Delivery confirmations let users know whether their message was received.
The device can transmit messages up to four miles in open areas, but significantly less depending on the terrain.
Units can also be used as independent transmitters, allowing someone to leave devices in particular locations to pass messages between users, creating a much larger network.
But the device isn’t completely independent of power sources. Both of the company’s first- and second-generation models — goTenna and goTenna Mesh — use rechargeable batteries that get about 24 hours of use.
When Houston flooded last week and first responders were overwhelmed, rescuers relied heavily on these kinds of digital tools to help them map victims’ locations and coordinate rescues across large networks of people.
The massive grass-roots effort was carried out using Google, smartphones and social media from the safety of dry living rooms across the city. As successful as the rescue effort was, much of it would’ve been impossible without the benefit of power and connectivity, which made it possible to use apps such as Zello, a massively popular walkie-talkie app that relies on cellphone data plans or WiFi to function.
Perdomo said she came up with the idea after Hurricane Sandy wiped out communications for a huge number of New Yorkers. Initially, she noted, she naively wanted to find a way for people to circumvent centralized networks without having to build new infrastructure.
The end result was goTenna, which, Perdomo said, is a way of empowering individuals so they can create and control their own network. Perdomo said the devices are being used by military operators in the Middle East, as well as by U.S. Interior Department workers and in relief operations around the globe.