Earthquake drill gives Kymeta’s emergency communication system a shakedown test


An overhead view shows Kymeta’s flat-panel antenna installed like a white stop sign on top of a Redmond Fire and Rescue medical response vehicle. (Kymeta Photo)

When disaster strikes, cellphone connections are among the first things to go by the wayside — so what will emergency responders who rely on that connectivity do?

That’s one of the big questions that first responders in Redmond, Wash., addressed this month during a two-day emergency preparedness drill called Cascadia Rising Solutions. And it was up to Kymeta, a Redmond-based startup backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, to provide answers.

Kymeta is creating a hybrid connectivity platform that makes use of standard cellular networks as well as satellite links and Wi-Fi to keep responders connected even when the cell towers go down. And Cascadia Rising Solutions provided the perfect opportunity to put Kymeta’s platform to a hometown test.

“It’s all up, all the time,” Ben Posthuma, Kymeta product manager for advanced connectivity, told GeekWire after the Oct. 18-19 exercise was over. “We have a platform that identifies the right pathway for the right type of information. The responders get connected to their vehicle as easily as they would connect to a Wi-Fi network.”

The scenario for the exercise supposes that a magnitude-9 earthquake — the “Really Big One” — has hit the Seattle area, knocking out power and communication links.

“The goal is to have a prepared and resilient community where we have a series of partners that we can depend on to help us respond and recover from an incident,” Pattijean Hooper, Redmond’s emergency manager, said in a news release.

Connected emergency vehicle
Kymeta’s flat-panel antenna is so unobtrusive it’s hard to spot on the roof of this Redmond Fire and Rescue medical response vehicle. (Kymeta Photo)

First responders will have to get people to hospitals, connect survivors to essential services, take stock of the situation and deploy their resources appropriately. “The first question is, ‘Do I have the information to do that?’ ” Hooper said. “Connectivity is the first element of response operation.”

Kymeta’s core technology is connectivity through flat-panel satellite antennas that make use of metamaterials. Because of the electronic properties of metamaterials, the antennas can link up with satellites without having to be moved to a given angle. Antennas no bigger than stop signs can easily be easily mounted onto the roofs of emergency vehicles and mobile command centers.

That’s what Kymeta did for the City of Redmond during Cascadia Rising Solutions. But the antennas are only part of the platform: Kymeta’s in-vehicle communication system can automatically identify and use the best available communication channel, choosing between cellular and satellite connections without the first responders having to think about it.

“Wherever the vehicle goes, the network goes with you,” Posthuma said.

Kymeta’s system was put to a real-world test two years ago in Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Since then, the company has fine-tuned its system to make connectivity more seamless for first responders and the emergency management agencies they work for.

“It really is an edge-and-cloud concept, where you have a hardware device at the edge that’s facilitating the connections as well as a complementary cloud service in the back that’s helping to make some deeper-level [data] traffic decisions,” Posthuma said.

During the Redmond exercise, first responders were able to transfer data and images, and make voice and video phone calls, even when the traditional communication networks weren’t available.

Posthuma said Cascadia Rising Solutions was a learning experience for Kymeta as well as for Redmond’s emergency agencies. The communication systems were installed on several emergency vehicles and provided great connectivity as long as first responders were within Wi-Fi range. But once they exceeded that range, beyond 300 feet or so, the choices for connectivity became more limited.

“Basically, we need to build a better edge network, and we’re working on that,” Posthuma said. One option might be to use a mesh network to relay signals.

Kymeta will also be working on ways to host more applications on its hybrid network — for example, to provide a cloud-based display that provides wide-angle situational awareness for the people managing the response to an emergency.

“There’s a desire to have this full, end-to-end service,” Posthuma said.

He said a commercial version of Kymeta’s emergency communication platform should start rolling out to the public in the next 12 months or so. And the insights gained from Kymeta’s continuing partnership with the City of Redmond are likely to be rolled into the company’s other products as well.

Founded in 2012, Kymeta is one of several metamaterials-based startups that have been spun out by Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures with backing from Gates and other high-profile investors.

“First responders are one of our key markets right now … but in the future, a lot more verticals are going to be opened up to us: public transportation, fleets in trucking. We’re still very much focused on the consumer connected car. Those are all things that are very much on the roadmap,” Posthuma said.

“The reason why we’re developing this service platform as our emerging strategy is because we want to see much better-optimized, end-to-end network solutions for these types of platforms,” he said. “Rather than just providing satellite-based internet and/or cellular internet, and letting the operator figure out what to do with it, we want to be that end-to-end solution provider, and provide that answer. … We are growing from a company that has a really revolutionary, really unique hardware platform to be able to use that to offer a unique set of services on top of that.”

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