Time travel with a celebrity status in Bangladesh
prototyping disaster comms and bycatch reporting.

Landing in Bangladesh I immediately say goodbye to few things – personal space, quiet moments, and clean clothes. It’s crazily crowded – 170 million to be exact, COVID distancing is a distant dream. Silence? Not a chance! Not a single traffic light. Traffic rules are horn-based. The louder horn commands the way. Cleanliness is not the highest priority here. The overpopulation side effects I guess. Nothing I can’t handle. The real surprise is our celebrity status here. Everyone wants a selfie with us. There aren’t many European visitors so people are curious. I am told that a picture with us boosts their Instagram profile so a win-win situation. Ego boost, instagram boost. Turns out a perfectly valid way to replace a self-esteem therapy session. Not proud, but definitely liking it.

The trip is 10 hours, but it feels more like a time travel. The contrast to Europe is unbelievable. It is different in so many ways. We travelled to a time before even countries existed. I bet that half of the people don’t even have IDs – this would explain the fact that Bangladesh shares the same life expectancy as Bulgaria. Many people are in survival mode. Food, water, and shelter, yet there are organisations like Save our seas that fight for nature and preservation. Humbling! Makes the Bulgarian complaints about corruption and governments pathetic!

Got your attention? Let’s rewind at the beginning.

I have a dream

NatGeo collaboration! This would be the ultimate recognition that our work has some value. I know, I know doing good shouldn’t need validation, but hey I am only human, let me have the egocentric moment. Anyway back to the story. I learned about Alifa and the Saveourseas project from Alasdair – the Arribada captain. She is a NatGeo explorer, so she worked on a project with them. I am already hooked! I want to know more.

Saving the sawfish that doesn’t cure cancer

The first call with Alifa is inspiring. She is genuine and passionate about their mission. In a country which is mostly in basic survival mode, it is incredible to see that there are people like Alifa, Tazin and Shawon, who find the motivation to fight the good fight for the environment. The exact spark I need to get involved!
Now let’s get into more details about the problem. There’s this wild myth that the Sawfish are some magic cancer fix, driving the black market sales and pushing them towards total extinction. Their mission is to step up and change that narrative. Alifa’s onto something way better than just stacking up more laws. She’s thinking, why not the good old barter economy – “help me help you”. Bartering with good intentions instead of potato bags.

The fishermen desperately need a way to call for help out at sea, and Alifa’s team needs recordings of bycatch releases. It blows my mind that their boats have zero comms. They’re literally playing with their lives to make ends meet. In a month they earn what a good European lawyer gets in one hour. This makes me realise just how much your birthplace defines your life. Long story short Alifa helps with the disaster comms and they help Alifa with the bycatch video recordings. The perfect win-win scenario.

Few calls later we have the MVP for both devices:

  • Low cost – budget is tight.
  • Energy-efficient – boats operate on batteries and their lives depend on it.
  • Easy to use – most fishers are not good with tech stuff
  • Prepared for harsh conditions -salt water, sun, moving objects
  • Long range – 50km or more
  • Sound recording – not that important, but nice to have

R&D phase – AKA the Google dive

We already have a bycatch reporting prototype as part of another project, so this part is mostly solved. The next step is researching for the comms. Keywords: low-cost, long-range, energy-efficient Few options and all of them use the LORA technology. After a lot of consideration – I land on Meshtastic – open source, very active community, and various hardware options.

It works with peer-to-peer communication and relaying. In other words, it doesn’t need a radio tower, devices connect directly, and they relay the signal. Мore devices equal a wider range.
The price tag of $30-$50, totally fits the budget! I place an order from China(TTGO) and a month later I’m all set for trial runs.

My way or the highway

First range tests in Bulgaria. The range depends heavily on the terrain so I pick up a relatively even highway road outside Sofia. All looks good – the devices work at 15-20km with only few missed messages. At this point, I think at sea with no obstacles the range will be doubled. Boy was I wrong!

COVID is turning the world upside down so I am learning the handstand

Just when it is time to order the rest of the hardware. Covid pandemic! Everyone is locked at home and this inevitably hits the component production so sourcing the rest of the hardware turns out problematic. Such is life! On the plus side, I have the time to learn handstand.

For prototyping, we usually use Rpi with Balena OS(easy remote management), but none of the Balena low-cost devices are in stock. With a lot of research and some luck I discover Banana PI, funny name, but it’s available and supported. Order placed, only to find out that the supported Balena OS is too old, so it is a no-go with Balena. Setting up just a VPN instead for remote access. Remember once the devices are installed easy remote access is essential for bug fixes and troubleshooting! Anyway after months of bad Covid luck, our five prototypes are finally ready.

In the end, what we have is a very “simple” setup – a waterproof box with a transparent lid for easy access, a backup battery to ensure it doesn’t entirely rely on external power, a microcomputer with an SD card, a CCTV camera and on/off, start/stop buttons. Remember, when prototyping – keep it simple, stupid – KISS! The original idea to avoid holes and keep the cameras inside the box doesn’t work. The delivered boxes fall short of their online presentation. The lid’s transparency is bad, resulting in blurred video footage. –

Bangladesh – the budget rollercoaster travel

With the prototypes ready it is time to hit the road – Bangladesh here we come. Poly (my usual partner in crime) decides to join.

Heading to Kuakata(the south coast) happens on a party bus AKA the budget rollercoaster. The driving here is mad. Busy tight roads, horn concert at all times and no traffic lines. I am impressed and scared at the same time.

Every inter-city bus here is a party bus! I explain this with the fact that alcohol is forbidden in the country and there are literally no nightclubs. Naturally, the party mood is moved to the buses. The seats are ridiculously luxurious. They’re so big that reclining them almost makes a full-sized bed. Europe take notes!

It almost fits!
It almost fits!
Dropping a friendly complaint: Could we speed up the visa process? 3 hours is too long!
Dropping a friendly complaint: Could we speed up the visa process? 3 hours is too long!

Signal lights not used so not even installed!
Signal lights not used so not even installed!

5 hours later we arrive with the rest of the team. The sunset here is different – more mysterious and not so bright. Even the moon has a different shape – it is rotated by almost 90°. Another proof that we travelled back in time!

We are watching the sunset and talking about our different odd cultural traditions. Tazin and Shawon share more about their work and their sincere dedication is really motivating. I am inspired and can’t wait to get started.

Shawon is the logistics and “call me for anything” 24/7 person. Finds a solution to any problem and Tazin is the data analytics and research. Tazin is always with his pro camera and knows all the facts – I call him the NatGeo explorer.

inception photo sessions
inception photo sessions

The beach trials failure – perfect team building experience

A quick stop to see the boats and decide on the camera and button locations and after that we start with the final assembly in the hotel. Turns out as the perfect team-building experience. Electricity blackouts every few hours delay the assembly but also keep us incredibly productive.

YouTube video

We are ready for the field tests. starting with the disaster comms at the beach. We get there by electric tricycle. I am Impressed! I can’t believe that one of the poorest countries in the world is the one using green transportation. There is a lesson here!

Monir Pai(pai for brother) – is our loyal wheelman. Believe it or not, his most valuable item is the tricycle cushion. A clean cushion equals more customers! He is looking after us and our stuff all the time. Sadly the sea took his father, and the boat never returned. His smile is always with him.

This touches me. A profound realization of the significance of our work!

The day doesn’t end well. In contrast to our excitement, the beach trials don’t end well – reaching only a disappointing 1km range – too many buildings. This means we move to plan B – test at sea. I am a bit worried. The following day we rent 2 boats and spend the day sending ping-pong messages and measuring distances.

Monir making sure we don't lose stuff.
Monir making sure we don’t lose stuff.
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My best day ever! A day under the sun with a sore throat, complemented by lots of smoke and noise on a boat that sinks but very slowly so there is time to pump out the water. The expression on my face tells it all! The day in Bangla that tested all my limits. The day I found out that pharmacies in Kuakata are for emergency use only. With medications only for the most critical conditions. Sore throat? “Not a big deal man just live with it!” Shawon is trying to help with a natural remedy – dry clove flowers. Organic medicine kind of saves the day! Doesn’t quite relieve the pain but I get good fresh breath.

The test ends with mixed results

At the end of the day, we reach nearly 18km with lots of missed messages. Not great for a disaster comms system!

The fishers sometimes go more than 50km so far from current results. Theoretically with more devices the range will increase due to the peer-to-peer relay mesh network, but it is still not ideal and reliable. I am really disappointed and need to think of a solution!

Meeting the fisherman and their stories

There is nothing else we can do about the disaster comms so the following day we meet the fisherman to get a bit more background about the Save Our Seas project and their life. Most of the stories are quite tragic without a happy ending. The boats don’t have any backups and any malfunction leaves them tens of kilometres away – hoping for a cellular signal. They don’t even have GPS! Old-school navigation techniques – wind and wave direction and size. Unbelievable and kind of respectful!

Another top priority of the project is the Sawfish. It is illegal to sell, but locals used to believe that it cures cancer so the black market drastically reduces its population. Through education and different incentives, they are hoping to change their fate and keep them from extinction. It is really admirable that people who risk their lives for just enough money to survive are still trying to collaborate to preserve nature. Conservation is a very difficult topic anywhere in the world due to the difficult incentives alignment and Bangladesh is no different, but Tazin, Shawon and Alifa are relentless and will not stop fighting this “almost-lost” battle for nature.

Shawon is so proud of their community awareness signs!
Shawon is so proud of their community awareness signs!
Top catch of the harbour owner
Top catch of the harbour owner

Black boxes meet your boats

All the tragic stories give the project a new name –  the black boxes of the Sea!
The disaster comms trial is disappointing, but we need to continue with the bycatch reporting device. We arrive at the harbour and it is like a Sparta movie…. I can’t believe it – I travelled back in time. Everything looks and feels like a movie set. The smell, the fire, the smoke. Traditional craftsmanship. They use fire to replace the coating. I am all in for new talents so I jump in to try it. A good backup plan in case AI takes over all engineering jobs!

Practising the Noah's ark skill.
Practising the Noah’s ark skill.
YouTube video

As soon as we arrive we become celebrities here. Everyone wants a selfie with us. I hate to admit it, but I like the ego boost. Cheaper than therapy! Joke aside, there are not many European visitors let alone carrying boxes with wires. They are curious and grateful. This genuine appreciation gives me a true feeling of purpose! The core reason I am into conservation tech.

After the distraction, we continue with the installation. Everyone is involved. Shawon and Tazin learn soldering. I give them basic knowledge about how the tech works. Turns out really helpful for the remote bug fixing later.

Practising some yoga to stay calm while checking the boat's battery below deck
Practising some yoga to stay calm while checking the boat’s battery below deck

This is my favourite moment! The dramatic background and my troubled face. Trying to connect to the devices for some last-minute software updates. The fishermen are afraid for the boat batteries so with this update, it will start recording as soon as the box is switched on eliminating the need to keep it constantly on. This last-minute update turns out to be the reason for a major bug which almost destroyed all footage. Testing in production! The moments that define our agility!

Setting Sail: Carrying Our Personal Legacy

Boats depart with our names on board, marking a legacy that will forever cruise the seas, even tagged at ৳1000. In a last-moment decision, we got a local carpenter to create bases for the CCTV cameras. I asked him to engrave them with our names with a side note for the quite generous payment for his service. Always support the local talent! Unexpectedly, he also added the price tag – a humorous twist on our ‘worth’!

In just 2 weeks we will have the first-ever bycatch recording from a Bangladesh boat. So I thought!

The time travel is over

Every story ends! Just 24 hours later, a shower on the connecting flight in Dubai – charged by the minute and costing as much as a week in Bangladesh – and we’re already back in Sofia.
Everything looks and feels different now! Bangladesh has forever changed my perspective and I appreciate things in a new way.

“How is Bangladesh?” the taxi driver asks but I can’t answer:
This is something that you have to experience to understand!

This initiative is the perfect reminder that true purpose and fulfilment are born from creating value and not profit. Thanks to Shawon, Tazin, and Poly for the shared moments and the hat. I absolutely love it – lots of colours and a little bit of dirt, just like our journey!

Few weeks later – the boats return, black boxes down

A week later the boxes are back and none of them works. Software bug, power issue? We spend the next few weeks troubleshooting with Shawon and Tazin. Like a real drama movie when everything looks lost we manage to recover the footage. We have the first-ever video from the Bangladesh Sea! We needed this small win. The last-minute update caused the SD card to fill up and corrupt the OS. Small software update and they are ready for the next sea trip.

YouTube video

Two months later – new hope for the disaster comms

In the meanwhile, I didn’t give up and found big antennas with 8dbi gain which in theory should reach 50km. Soon after the order, Alifa tells me that text messaging turns out to be difficult for the fisherman so we want to explore audio comms. This is not in my domain, but I really want to help so with some research plus lots of Chatgpt prompts I found the Xiegu G90 (SSB ) radio which uses sky propagation with ranges of up to 100km. Contacted lots of suppliers, but none of them could give me clear specifics on whether this range is realistic and the antenna size to reach this distance.
I am overwhelmed and disappointed, but Alasdair from Arribada gives us new hope. A project called Hermes Digital Radio(rhizomatica). It is open-source community-focused digital audio. Open-source is always what we want! Sharing is caring!

Peter from the project is really helpful so we are moving forward in that direction.
The size and price of the radio are much bigger, but our research points to this as the only reasonable choice. Reliability and ease of use shouldn’t be compromised for disaster comms.

The nerd section

  • 12v li-ion battery
  • 12v to 5v adapter
  • Banana Pi M1+
  • Standard 3MP CCTC camera
  • Meshtastic LILYGO® TTGO T-Beam
  • Custom golang software
  • Docker
  • Tailscale VPN for remote access
  • Hermes digital radio
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