Building comms for Battle Mountain

Shortly after returning to Sonoma county, I got in touch with a friend
from my IHPVA/WHPVA, Steve Delaire of Rotator Recumbents. Though no longer in the recumbent business, Steve is still active with IHPVA.

From what I can tell IHPVA now pretty much just does one thing– they run a one-week speed event outside Battle Mountain, Nevada.
Speed events are fun but I have always been more interested in practical applications of human power, like commuting by bike.

Still and all, Steve told me he had volunteered to work on communications for the event.  Providing communication support is
interesting to me. So I signed on to help.

There is no cellular network out there in the middle of Nevada, so mobile phones are useless. They’ve already tried handy talkies, which do not have enough range.

There is a nearby 2m repeater, so my first idea was to enlist local
ham radio people. Turns out that approach had already been tried and they are not interested in helping.

Steve’s idea was to use WiFi and smart phones. I am not convinced this is the best approach but it is certainly interesting to me, so it’s
what we’re trying. Steve still has more optimism than I about the
limitations of WiFI in smart phones. :-) My experience indicates that
you need a good antenna to make wifi work over more than about a hundred feet and I’ve never seen a smart phone with a good WiFi antenna.

But I love working with all these goodies, so I dove in.


The course is a total of about 6 miles end to end. It’s a straight line. It’s flat.  It’s in the middle of the desert, so there are no trees or buildings. So we don’t need to worry about obstructions other than the ground. (It gets into the Fresnel zone.)

There are road closure points at each end of the course, and at two side road crossings.  There is a launch area, a long run up stretch for bikes to come up to speed, timing traps, a coast down stretch, and a landing zone where the bikes are caught (the catch area)

The most important communications links are between the course management area at the catch area and the launch area. Bikes stack up up in the launch area. A message to launch a bike has to come from course course management when the course is clear.

Roads have to be closed when bikes are on the course, and the maximum closure is 30 minutes to allow stopped cars to get through, so there is also a need to talk to people at the closure points.


I have been working with Ubiquiti and Mikrotik wireless equipment at my current day job with CDS Wireless in Santa Rosa. Based on brief experience there I chose Ubiquiti as the supplier for the radios.

Our Ubiquiti dealer, Streakwave, put us on the right track by suggesting radios and antennas to use, and how to configure them to work in mesh mode.  In this configuration the radios will act like access points to allow smart phones (and any other WiFi devices) to participate in one network. Mesh (“AP Repeater”) mode means that the three radios will pass packets along; in other words, we can put the three radios in a line along the course and the one in the middle will repeat any packets it sees so that the traffic can get from one end of the line to the other. If we need more range we can simply add more radios to the line.



This project seemed to call for a map, so I made one.


I used DEM data (elevations) to discover there is a small hill at the north end of the course and a grade at the south end.  We might take advantage of the elevations next year to get better placement for the radios.

Tests with no Server

Our first test were done to confirm we could set up a network and send traffic over it without worrying about the application software.

Steve wants a solution that only uses apps, no server. I think this would be great, but all the communications apps I have seen so far though that “don’t require a server”, really do. They use a public server based on the Internet, and we don’t have any Internet connection.


Addition of server

I tested several handie talkie style “push-to-talk” apps but have not found any that work without either an Internet connection or a proprietary ($) server. I solicit your suggestions!

We also wanted to be able to send text messages, same story there. You need a server.

I fell back on VOIP and XMPP. I have experience using Asterisk phone systems and XMPP chat systems.

The first ‘server’ we tried used a BUFFALO WZR-HP-G300NH2 gateway router hacked to run OpenWRT.  This is capable of doing almost everything we need. But it will not support conference calls!  Mass communications is a cornerstone of making this system work.

I also want a nice web-based account management tool (based on LDAP) so that staff can add or remove users easily. I don’t have that going yet.

So I borrowed an old laptop, installed Xubuntu 14.04 on it, and installed Asterisk (PBX server) and Openfire (XMPP server). While I was at it, I added a wiki so that I could easily give Steve some project documentation and tie everything together via web browser. The laptop does DNS name serving and is the network DHCP server. The laptop can also function as a router when the system is connected to the Internet. (So few words to describe 2 weeks of work!)


Long experience has made me conservative on projects like this. I’d normally do testing at each stage to make sure I had a solid foundation to work on as we added complexity. Doing this builds confidence and helps catch problems early on when fixing them is still cheap and easy.

In this case, I had to keep reminding myself this project is really just for fun and so I relented to Steve’s desires to push ahead with minimal testing. “Failure is always an option.” :-)

We did one range test to confirm that two of the Ubiquiti radios can talk at about a 3 mile range over open ground. (It is hard to find open, flat ground in Sonoma county! Too many trees here!)

During the range test we got the phones to connect with VOIP software, and they worked fine.

Ship it!

Here is what got shipped out today. (9/5/14)

Three tower radio stations, each with

  1. Ubiquiti Bullet M2-HP access point, equipped with 12 dBi omni antenna (M2 = 2.4 Ghz band, HP is “high power”)
  2. 20′ tower made from steel and PVC pipe (Steve’s contribution; I am not sure how he will anchor the towers)
  3. POE injector + 50′ shielded CAT6 cable to send power up the tower.
  4. 24v converter, to help keep the radios operating even when battery level drops and to compensate for voltage drop on the wire.
  5. 12v volt gel cell battery

At the control table,

  1. A server built on a laptop (Dell Vostro 1500 upgraded with a 60GB SSD)
  2. An inverter to allow running the laptop from the battery.
    (DC to AC conversion is inefficient, but the laptop is on loan. Next year we should eliminate the inverter and use a dedicated 12v laptop power supply for the server.)
  3. RigRunner 4004USB and a connectorized volt/amp meter to facilitate testing power draw. USB connectors on the
    RigRunner can be used to recharge / power smart phones from the 12V battery.
  4. The laptop ethernet plugs into the LAN jack on the Ubiquiti POE injector.

All the DC connections are made via PowerPole connectors for maximum flexibility.

We tested apps and the plan is that Steve will tell participants what
to load and configure when they are at the event hotel, where Internet access is available.  For VOIP communications, we settled on Media5-fone, which works on both iPhone and Android.  I have tested Xabber as an XMPP app for Android. As I write this, I have not heard what iPhone app Steve has chosen.


I would have spent another week just doing range testing and testing the WiFi to phone connections.  I did a bit of that on my own, I remain convinced that will be the biggest problem. I think the phones will drop off the network if they are more than about 100 feet from a tower. This means they will probably be adding three more towers next year.

I provided all the pieces they need to do both voice and text communications.  They will need to experiment to figure out good protocols to use these tools.  I am hoping they really give it a try; there is a lot going on out there but they really need good communications.

Problems I anticipate and what to do about them

1. Smart phone batteries go dead too quickly. Fix: carry extra batteries.
2. Laptop and smart phone screens are invisible in desert sun. Fix: canopies? Broad brimmed hats?
3. Smart phone wifi range is bad. Fix: add more towers.
4. People can’t figure out how to use the apps on their phones. Fix: provide advance training (web site?).
5. Staff will have problems understanding how to operate the server software. Fix: Write better software!

Alternatively, scrap the whole concept and use real radios. ;-)

Next year

  • Find good PTT (push to talk) apps
  • Find the best SIP apps
  • Complete the LDAP integration and implement a simple account management page.
  • Reader board on web page. Staff could update a reader board after each run so everyone could monitor results in real time.
  • Can we use voice over XMPP instead of Asterisk for conference rooms?

ArcGIS on a Mac

I should have written many posts by now, so much stuff is going on.

A hardware failure in June inclined me to retire my beloved 2009 13″ Mac Book Pro and to replace it with a brand-new 13″. It is better in just about every way. My beloved told me to get the top end model, so it has the fastest i7 processor, 16GB RAM, the 1GB SSD. I thought the Retina display was just hype but especially for my old eyes, but now I find every other screen looks blurry and faded.

It is smaller and lighter, in part because there is no built-in DVD drive. I got an external USB drive for $30 from Newegg.

Committed as I am to doing GIS on a Mac while living nomadically, I went through a week in July of testing VirtualBox, VMWare Fusion, and Parallels 9. Parallels 9 won the contest. I was able to directly import my existing VirtualBox VMs into Parallels and I have not looked back since.  For me, it’s the video driver. Parallels has the best out of the three. Very important for graphics intensive programs like ArcGIS and Topo.

ArcGIS 10.2 and Delorme Topo 9 work great. I was disappointed by VMWare Fusion, especially since ESRI specifically mentioned it in ArcUser magazine. Don’t bother. Use Parallels.

It was not clear to me at the Parallels site, but you can install it and select “trial” mode, just download and run the installer without paying for anything. The same is true for VMWare Fusion, and you can install them both at the same time, you just can’t run them at the same time.

Parallels 10 came out in September,  I upgraded, and yes, it really is better and faster. Upgrade if you have version 8 or 9 — it’s only $50. It’s worth it.

GIS on a Mac

I am between houses now and I miss my nice file server Dart and my nice desktop Laysan because they are in storage, so I want to work more with GIS on my laptop, a MacBookPro (Stellar).

The best set of instructions I have found for setting up the open source GIS tools I know and love on my Mac is here:   Installing Open Source Geo Software: Mac Edition These instructions are pretty complete and worked well for me on Mavericks.

I found I had to install pillow to satisfy the requirement in tilestache for PIL.

sudo pip install pillow

It took several hours to install Mapnik; skip that step if you don’t plan to use it.

In the past I used stackbuilder to install postgresql and postgis on my Mac. I removed that version and install with brew; what could be easier than

brew install postgresql

brew install postgis

I had to hack around a bit to get postgres set up. I created /usr/local/var/postgres/9.2/main by adding “export PGDATA=/usr/local/var/postgres/9.2/main” to my .bashrc and then running initdb. I had to do the command “createdb” to get my user created so that “psql -h localhost” would let me connect to the server.


Moving back to California

Our house is now (unofficially) for sale. We have not listed it anywhere yet. It’s at 415 SE Alexander Ave in Corvallis, Oregon


Trulia lists it at $309,000.  See their listing for more detailed information.  The house is less than a mile to the city center, yet it’s on a huge .63 acre lot.

Most rooms have original hardwood flooring (refinished a few years ago). The master bedroom has carpet over the hardwood, One bedroom has cork. The kitchen has marmoleum flooring and paperstone and formica counters and custom-made cabinets. It has a solartube skylight to let in extra light as does the bathroom.

Off the kitchen is a room that has a french door opening onto a new 8×12′ composite deck.

The yard is split roughly 50/50 between the front section with landscaping (lots of natives) and the back which is about a 1/4 acre used for veggie garden. The last 30 feet or so at the back is a buffer zone behind the deer fence; there is roughly 5 acres of space back there that is undeveloped.  Yes, that’s right, right here in Corvallis there is 5 acres of open space behind our house!

We have producing cherry trees and plum trees and apple trees. We have blueberries and marion berries. We have a young walnut tree and a young persimmon tree.

When we moved in, it was mostly a big lawn front and back, there is still enough lawn in the back to enjoy but you won’t need to spend all weekend walking behind your lawnmower.

We have a well to provide house and garden with water, but we are connected to the city for sewer service. There is a water softener for the house. The water heater is electric.

We have a 96% efficient gas furnace (about 4 years old now) and new ducts. All windows are double pane or better. We have full insulation including under floor.  The house is warm and snug and energy efficient.

The 2.8 KW photovoltaic solar panels are installed on a steel roof. The panels and roof are 2 years old.

The solar panels still have two years to go on the state tax credit, which means the new owner can get a state tax reduction of $1500 per year for 2014 and 2015.

The solar panels are making about 1200 watts right now. Since installation 2 years ago we have generated over 7 megawatts. Our summer bill is the minimum, $10.26 and in the dark of winter it’s about $50. Basically we make all our own electricity.


We put speakers into the ceiling in two rooms and wired them to the living room, 4 rooms total are wired for speakers.

It has the usual tv cable installed but also has gigabit ethernet wiring installed. There is an infrastructure cabinet in the hall closet to contain a Comcast compatible modem, an ethernet switch, and I keep a WiFi access point in there.

Today we are moving stuff into a PODS shipping container that’s waiting for me in the driveway right now!

Brian Wilson brian @, Julie Skopal  julie @ 541-368-7383