Solar-Powered Wireless Router

Published Nov-27-09

A solar-powered wireless router using cheap materials that offers IT opportunities to children in the developing world

Zacary Brown, United States

The Story:

Solar-Powered Wireless Router ASSET India is dedicated to alleviating poverty in the subcontinent by providing IT skills and opportunities to victims of trafficking and children of sex workers. The foundation adopted an open innovation approach when it wanted a cost-effective way of providing poor communities with affordable Internet access. A challenge was launched that asked for a solar-powered wireless router created from low-cost and readily available software and hardware components.

Open Innovation Helps to Alleviate Poverty

Ray Umashankar, an executive director at ASSET had set the challenge after coming up with the idea of a rural Internet network that would link large cities to remote villages in developing countries. These are places with limited amounts of electricity and minimal (if any) access to the Internet. The availability of constant Internet access would allow teenagers living outside of big cities to take on work provided by large technology companies.

By seeking an open innovation solution the foundation was able to access hundreds of brilliant brains. During a two-month period toward the end of 2007 more than 400 solvers in 30 countries analyzed the problem on InnoCentive’s website, and 27 submitted their proposals.

Wireless Network

Umashankar’s plan involved building a wireless mesh network. It is a decentralized system where each node only transmits data to the next closest node. Wireless routers are needed to connect users to an uplink. They have to be powerful enough to cope with large amounts of data and be able to do it without being reliant on grid electricity.

Tough Challenge

Software engineer Zacary Brown from Texas constantly checks for challenges and this one appealed to him because it tied in with several of his hobbies. An amateur radio enthusiast he has studied the design and construction of amateur radio networks and integrated solar power into some of his activities. So there was a familiarity with the challenge at hand.

He studied the problem for a number of weeks, but the solution did not come straight away. “I was actively working on it in the evenings. I got discouraged at one point but kept going and finally found the solution.”

He got over the design problems in part by studying published papers from MIT’s “Roofnet Project” which is an experimental rooftop wireless network.

Brown’s solution uses a Linux-based operating system that is powered by a battery which gets its energy from the sun via solar panels. The hardware is robust enough so that it can withstand outdoor use and it can be controlled remotely, so network operators are able to activate the switches with pre-paid cell phones. This remote access was not part of the challenge, but something than Brown developed as he was working on it.

The software engineer has several motivations for being involved in open innovation projects. These are the intellectual challenge, the opportunity to make a buck or two, and more importantly, the chance to make a big difference to people’s lives “It is rewarding to develop something that will have such a profound impact on children in India and support a world cause."

After the open innovation prize was won two solar-powered wireless router prototypes were constructed by engineering students at the University of Arizona, ready to be tested in the field.

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