The LUCI project — connecting the remote Chini Lake area, Malaysia

By on 31 May 2024

Category: Tech matters

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The LUCI project overcame difficult terrain by mounting a LoRaWAN gateway on a balloon, delivering connectivity solutions to remote communities.

Imagine living in a community where reliable Internet access is a luxury, not a given. This is the reality for many people around the world, especially in remote or underserved areas. But what if there was a way to bridge this digital divide and bring the power of the Internet to these communities?

Chini Lake, known locally as Tasik Chini, in the Pekan region of Pahang, Malaysia, is the second largest freshwater lake in Peninsular Malaysia and is comprises a series of 12 lakes. The lake shores are inhabited by an estimated 500 indigenous people of the Jakun tribe (also known as Orang Asli Jakun). The Orang Asli Jakun community is made up of six villages and according to earlier research, most households are engaged in small-scale primary industry (such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry-oriented work), using resources from the lake and the surrounding forests.

Existing Internet capacity issues impede economic growth for these communities, and present health care and education challenges. Currently, the only source of formal education for many school-aged children of Chini Lake is to travel by boat to primary school daily. Developing Internet capacity for this, and other Orang Asli communities could vastly improve these circumstances.

With the rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) technology has become popular in urban, e-health, and agricultural / environmental settings. Sigfox, LoRa, and NB-IoT are the main competing LPWAN technologies. LoRa stands out for its flexibility, allowing local network deployment through LoRa gateways and public network operation via cellular base stations or Wi-Fi access points. Additionally, LoRa has the lowest deployment cost.

LoRa networks typically use a star or point-to-point topology, where nodes communicate with a gateway that forwards data to a network server. However, in scenarios where node signals can’t reach the gateway due to obstacles or topography, a lighter protocol stack without a gateway is more suitable. To address this, a mesh LoRa topology has been proposed for dynamic transmission between IoT devices. Additionally, a hybrid LoRa Mesh/LoRaWAN network uses a coordinator, or Proxy node, to manage mesh routes and forward packets to LoRaWAN gateways, extending coverage and connectivity to previously unserved areas.

The LUCI project

The Hybrid LoRa for Underserved Community Internet (LUCI) project, funded by ISIF Asia, tackles this challenge by deploying a combination of a long-range low-power data communication and mesh network with the help of a tethered Low Altitude Platform (LAP) using a helium balloon to deliver services via an Internet of Things (IoT) platform.

LoRa technology’s minimal power requirements make it ideal for areas with limited or unreliable electricity access such as those found at Chini Lake. Additionally, the project leverages existing infrastructure whenever possible, minimizing the need for expensive new installations. The hybrid solution used for the LUCI project was developed with the assistance of an international partner, ICTP Italy. The site was chosen due to its proximity to our satellite campus, the Chini Lake Research Centre (PPTC UKM) and its close relationship with the local indigenous community fostered by Dr Rozita Ibrahim and Nur Amelia Abas.

The idea had been previously explored in a collaboration between Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) Japan, and the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems (MINOS) Berhad, which had already established that when using a spherical balloon, the swing angle was far too severe for reliable wireless communication.

Next, we tried a Helikite solution — a kite and helium balloon combination usually used to carry meteorological instruments — which offered potentially much better coverage. Inflation of the balloon and testing at the trial site in UKM went well. However, upon inflation onsite at Chini Lake, some leakage was discovered, requiring an emergency balloon patch. This indicates potential durability and longevity issues with the technology. A Malaysian flag was attached to the balloon for its first onsite flight at Chini to commemorate the date —  Malaysia’s National Day (31 August).

Difficulties and successes

Initial testing showed that weather conditions such as rain and cloudy days affect the balloon’s lifting weight so helium gas refills would be needed, but the remote location made it challenging and expensive for the delivery of helium gas.

We then explored using a fixed mounting structure on top of Ketaya Hill (the highest point located next to Chini Lake). However, access to the top of the hill was hazardous. We reached the Ketaya Hill summit using a decommissioned mining road that required ad hoc repair with a hoe to fix the dirt road, a machete to remove fallen trees blocking the road, and expert off-road driving due to landslides.

Figure 1 — Installation of the mounting platform structure and LoRaWAN gateway at Bukit Ketaya, the highest point surrounding the Chini Lake, was conducted in collaboration with the State Forestry Division.
Figure 1 — Installation of the mounting platform structure and LoRaWAN gateway at Bukit Ketaya, the highest point surrounding the Chini Lake, was conducted in collaboration with the Pahang State Forestry Division.

We were extremely lucky to get help from rangers of the Pahang State Forestry Division. However, mounting the LoRa gateway at the top of this hill gave us an unexpected surprise. We had two drive teams to test coverage in different directions. We achieved our stated goal of 20km coverage in one direction and a record-breaking 48km in the other — The Ketaya Hill solution had achieved LoRa terrestrial coverage not just to Chini Lake and surrounding villages but all the way to Pekan, a city at the edge of South China Sea!

As the signal was strong, we probably could record an even better coverage distance by hiring a boat to test in the sea and if the team at Ketaya Hill could stand the heat for longer. Despite the sunburn and the majority of the team members contracting COVID-19 during the Helikite balloon measurements (we tagged ourselves as the Chini ‘cluster’ at the time), we are extremely proud of this achievement.

Comprehensive evaluations of system configuration parameters showed that improvements in both the Spreading Factor (SF) and gateway placements significantly boosted network performance in terms of coverage and signal strength. Adjusting the SF from 7 to 10 and optimizing gateway heights dramatically expanded coverage, with an average signal improvement of 10dB when increasing the gateway height from 25m to 120m. The best performance was achieved with the gateway placement at Bukit Ketaya at 220m above sea level, enabling communication over distances exceeding 48km with enhanced signal quality. This setup demonstrated a significant leap in performance and network reliability in challenging environments.

Our main innovation was the combination of two LoRa networks namely LoRaWAN and Mesh LoRa that are usually standalone networks into a single hybrid and seamless network. This hybrid LoRa network offers several services such as text messaging, voice messaging, and disaster alerts to the indigenous community and a value-added IoT platform that has never been attempted before. The integration of these technologies was made possible using an interface node, known as the proxy node, with a specific on-demand routing protocol with access to both networks that previously did not have a line-of-sight (shadowed by terrain elevation and dense forest foliage).

Sensor nodes for the Chini Lake provided periodic readings to the LoRaWAN, which is updated in the IoT platforms through The Things Stack and Telegram bot. The Mesh LoRa nodes have access to the cloud and can get early warnings for flood or drought disaster mitigation.

Many thanks to all project team members and other collaborators who have ensured the successful completion of the project deliverables. Since completing the project, we have learned many valuable things and expanded our collaboration. Among them is understanding how the Helium balloon, technically described as LAP, can fit into the bigger picture of non-terrestrial networks for future wireless communication. We have also recently identified potential wireless solutions in another group of underserved communities in a dense urban population. We’re looking forward to the next adventure in connecting underserved communities!

Head over to the APNIC Foundation website to read the LUCI project’s technical report for all the geeky details!

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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