Researchers at the TU Darmstadt around Professor Matthias Hollick are experimenting with technologies designed to empower the civilian population in times of crisis.

They aim at establishing basic communications and means to share information, thus facilitating human cooperation and mutual aid even following wide-spread power and Internet outages.

Unknown hackers launched a malware attack on the Ukrainian national power grid in late 2016. The malicious software interfered with the control system and caused an hour-long power outage in parts of Kiev. In the last year, other hackers set their sights on the Domain Name Service (DNS) owned by Dyn, a US American service provider, knocking out several websites, including Netflix and Amazon for multiple hours. These are just two of the many examples that expose the vulnerability of today’s high-tech society; and the German federal government regards attacks on our critical infrastructure as a latent danger.

Natural disasters or major emergencies can also isolate a region from the power grid and Internet, which is why the German Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance advises citizens to stockpile food supplies for crisis situations. However, the population at large dismisses this risk. What would happen if the power supply system and Internet really were to fail? Most people no longer have battery operated radios, and would be completely cut off from all information sources.

“Despite our increasing dependence on infrastructure-based networks”,warns Matthias Hollick, Professor on Security in Mobile Networks at the TU Darmstadt, “no backup plans exist. Civil protection and disaster assistance has even seen budget cuts in recent years. The authorities and armed forces are able to operate their communication networks for a considerable time, even in the absence of external power supply. In contrast, the civilian population would be mostly disconnected from any means of communications.”

Interdisciplinary Research Centre “NICER”

That’s why Hollick and his colleagues founded “Networked Infrastructureless Cooperation for Emergency Response” (NICER), an interdisciplinary research centre at the TU Darmstadt. Its core team consists of eleven professors, three post-doctoral researchers, sixteen research associates and six associate staff members. NICER is a joint project involving the Universities of Kassel and Marburg and receives some 4.5 million Euro in funding from the federal state of Hesse within the LOEWE programme.

The basic idea is to network the population by means of infrastructureless information and communication technologies. To achieve this objective, NICER is focused on three key themes: the establishment of autonomous communication islands, the construction of bridges between the islands, and the operation of an overall network with special applications for use in crisis situations.

That’s why the researchers want to establish communication islands. An island may be an urban district or a village. All mobile devices within the island would be able to communicate with one another without the need for any underlying infrastructure. Moreover, in case of large-scale disasters, there may be several such islands all existing independently of one another. Additional bridges would then need to be established to enable communications between islands. For example, a mobile device carried by a resident of one island who happens to travel to another island could function as a bridge between the two areas. It would store information destined for recipients in the other island and physically carry it there, thus enabling the exchange of information over longer distances.