BRCK BLOG

Last week on Friday we had the privilege of seeing first-hand the work of the Africa Cancer Foundation during a two-day screening at Meru Primary School. Despite the dreary weather, the turnout was excellent. Almost 350 men and 200 women had shown up by the time the day was over!

The Africa Cancer Foundation is a non-profit organization that promotes cancer awareness and prevention by early detection, provides support to cancer patients and caregivers, and is involved in the development of guidelines and protocols for cancer diagnosis, treatment and healthcare provision.

With the increase in the uptake of smartphones and the increasing coverage of mobile networks, the foundation has come up with a smartphone app for the collection and storage of the data collected during cancer screenings. A smartphone with the app installed is given to the volunteers. They then use these to gather and send information to a central cloud.

BRCK Providing Connectivity for Uploading Data

BRCK Providing Connectivity for Uploading Data

The name of the patient, age, phone number and intelligence like drinking and smoking habits is collected and even images from, for example, cervical cancer screenings, can be stored and transmitted using the app.

Mobile ODT (Offline Data Transfer) Device is a smartphone-enabled medical device that is used to detect Cervical Cancer.

Mobile ODT (Offline Data Transfer) Device is a smartphone-enabled medical device that is used to detect Cervical Cancer.

Initially, this process required each phone used to have a line and an individual service plan, which was expensive and inconvenient. That is where we stepped in. In four of the data collection points – the reception, breast cancer screening, cervical cancer screening and prostate cancer screening rooms. One BRCK’s connection is shared between four or five people, thus minimizing the overall costs of data.

When you imagine internet connectivity in a people-driven context, you seldom remember that it can be used not just for social media or Education. It also makes it easier to store and retrieve health information, use that becomes more profound when dealing with a disease like cancer where early detection and prevention is a huge factor in minimizing incidences.

The BRCK is not just a device to keep you online but also one that can be used to do good, as we experienced first-hand during the cancer screening on Friday. The ability to set-and-forget a BRCK allows you to focus on what is most important to you, and it allowed the volunteers to focus on their potentially life-saving jobs.

We had fun; we were honored at the invitation, and we hope to do it again sometime soon! Please follow The Africa Cancer Foundation on Twitter for screening dates and locations. Who knows? You just might bump into us 😉

An announcement is coming up soon about how we will continue doing this sort of work through BRCK.org. If you are interested in partnering with us, do contact us at [email protected] and also on Twitter via @brcknet.

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#AskBRCK

Fender

Apr
22
2016

askbrck

We’re continuing to grow at BRCK, and have a lot of things going on now, from our normal BRCK connectivity device, to education with our Kio Kit and have started doing some interesting sensor-connectivity as well.

With all this going on, we thought it might be good to have a monthly “chat” with key people in the organization where you can ask questions and get some answers.  Our idea right now is to target these conversations on Twitter around specific topics.

This Twitter chat will be hosted every last Thursday of each month at 3:00pm EAT for an hour.

You will pose questions with the hashtag #AskBRCK and our CEO will respond to them.

Do you have that burning question that you’ve always wanted to ask us? Use the hashtag #AskBRCK on the 28th of April from 3-4pm Kenya time and our CEO Erik Hersman will respond to it.

 

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Apr
7
2016

IMG_3754

There has been a lot of talk about “inclusive business” since the term was coined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in 2005. A business is said to be inclusive when it’s value chains purposefully “include” the needs and wants of low-income people and communities, and the company then implements on a business model built around more than just a profit-based bottom line. Those of us who have been part of building things like Ushahidi, iHub Nairobi, Gearbox, and BRCK are nothing if not inclusive business practitioners. However, the real issue comes down to who gets to decide the “who, when, and where” of what gets included.

Our experience of “making in Africa for Africa” has shown us that local design is by its very nature inclusive. When we design here in Nairobi we are using “from periphery to centre thinking”, and the chances of misreading low-income markets in our product design is greatly reduced. Designers who live and work in Manhattan (no offence to the amazing designers of that great city) must consciously find ways to build processes that include the issues faced by the global poor. In Nairobi one has to try hard not to.

When you design at the periphery – the whole point is that you by necessity “include” the needs and wants of low income people, not just because this is a BoP market in the Prahaladian sense of the term, but because you live and work in the same context as those you seek to serve by making great products and services that people want. At BRCK there is a design team with diverse experiences, including what it is like to live in low income areas and schools. These experiences and context inform the design process and iterative improvements to the products and services provided by the various initiatives.

Forward thinking companies like Intel have been pursuing business models that benefit from local learning. Intel took the BRCK hardware platform known as the Kio Kit and combined it with their innovative software and content, to produce a customised Kio Kit designed specifically for women and youth empowerment projects in Kenya; which are a part of a larger initiative from Intel Corporation to tackle the digital divide. This is what inclusive business is about on the ground.  From this partnership with Intel, we are finding that inclusive business goes hand in hand with appropriate technology and design at the periphery.

*Post by Juliana Rotich & Richard Klopp of BRCK.org,  an initiative to deploy reliable technology to the edges of society. Juliana will be at Skoll World Forum next week discussing how new developments in tech can accelerate change. Do connect with her there or you can reach out to juliana at BRCK dot org to discuss more on how to partner for deploying tech to the edges of society.

 

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We’ve been back from Mt Kenya for a week now.  Although many expedition posts are about the exhilarating adventures we have had, the reason we continue to do these trips is because of the field learnings that come about about; some are expected some are unexpected.

Batteries are the weakest link.  

This was the first BRCK expedition that was human and not car powered.  That meant not only did we have to carry everything ourselves but we also had to find ways to charge all our gizmos along the way; we did not have a 12V socket anywhere nearby.  This meant that throughout the trip most of us had solar panels strapped to the top of our packs.  Luckily the equatorial sun at that altitude is quite strong (ALL of us got sun burnt on this trip) and so the solar panels worked fairly well though we did discover which panels perform best.

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-36

Trying to catch the last rays of sun.

Additionally, from the drone to the phones, from the Go-Pro cameras to the picoBRCKs almost all our gear operated off of lithium ion batteries; only the weather station used a lead acid battery.  A review of battery technologies will reveal that although lithium based batteries have many advantages, one of their significant shortcomings is their poor performance at low temperatures.  The temperatures on Mt Kenya regularly get below freezing and so we were continually packed our phones and battery packs under our jackets in an attempt to keep them warm.  Nevertheless, all of us experienced watching our phones go from 20-30% charge to dead within a minute as the phone tried to predict the charge on the battery in cold conditions.

All things considered, I think we did fairly well keeping everything powered.  However, it emphasizes the unique challenges of the IOT market we are targeting.  Our IOT environment is not inside the home or industrial facility.  It is not even inside an urban area; picoBRCKs are and will be scattered in some pretty harsh environments and that means that we need to make sure our power source is up to the challenge.

GSM is NOT an IOT backbone.

We are stuck on this one.  All our current picoBRCK customers want to take advantage of the incredible cellular coverage that we have in emerging markets.  However, cellular communications is intensely power hungry.  In fact the GSMA specification itself actual specifies that the equipment should produce a 2A pulse for over 1mS.  In the world of IOT, where a few milli-amps is significant and things are usually measured in micro-amps, 2 amps is huge.  It affects the size and chemistry of battery we can use (which is no small issue, but too technical for this post), it affects the type and quality of FETs that we can use in the power chain as we try to deliver and then turn off power to the modem in the picoBRCK, and of course it affects the longevity of the battery between charges and the requirements of the charging system.

picoBRCK

the picoBRCK circuit board: A full 25% of the board is taken up by the power & battery management circuitry, much of which is needed to power the SIM800 cellular module (top left). The empty space in the top right is reserved for the LoRa module.

In the short term we will stick with GSM as our communication backhaul for picoBRCK and overcome those inherent challenges.  But the one technology that is popping up over and over is LoRa.  Although it has similar range capabilities as cellular communication, it achieves these distances with much less power.  We still have much to learn about this technology but the picoBRCK is already LoRa capable and I look forward to testing it out.

Another benefit to LoRa is that it is free while each GSM based device requires a SIM card with credit that needs to be monitored and topped up.  The actual cost of the data here in Kenya is fairly reasonable but on top of this is the logistical and human costs associated with managing that aspect of the infrastructure.  There are many services that will do this for you of course but these have their own expenses which prevents any IOT solution from truly scaling in this environment.

Anecdote

Our time on Mt Kenya illustrated both these issues beautifully.  We mostly had network connection around and near Point Lenana.  However, the situation with Fender unfolded mostly on the slopes of the mountain so as soon as we could see the lights of the surrounding towns I tried to start making arrangements and informing people about the situation.  At this point my main phone ran out of battery and I had no credit on my secondary phone.  It took some “Please call me requests” and other fiddling while we were hiking down in the dark to communicate with people in Nairobi.  This is not the first time that I have been in situation where either power and credit have failed. Any option to eliminate one of these potential failure points, such as by using LoRa instead of GSM and simplifying the power management circuitry, will greatly increase the overall reliability and up-time of an IOT ecosystem.

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Mar
22
2016

Before this expedition I had been to Mount Kenya twice. I was successful in summiting point Lenana the first time but failed the second time. So this was also a revenge mission. I had a cold going into this expedition and it exacerbated itself once I reached the foot of the mountain. I had some big doubts if I would really make it. I paid very close attention to my body reaction because I was here before and getting sick in the mountain is no joke.

As long I was just suffering from the cold that I had had when I came with to the mountain I had no worries. So we started hiking up the mountain once it was confirmed that we could not use our truck to travel the first hundred meters. I was always the last. The cold was having a toll on me from the beginning but I took some good rest.

We reached our first base camp around 6:30pm and it started to become cold. Once I started unpacking my stuff to prepare for sleep I realized I did not carry my own sleeping pad lucky I carried lots of clothes so I used that for my padding, it wasn’t efficient but better than nothing.  Unfortunately I had one of the worst sleeps ever; I was cold and I had a fever.  In the morning, after a nice cup of tea, it got better. We all were getting ready for the hike on the second day. I had to go before my team because knew I was very slow. But as expected in a few minutes they caught up to me and passed me. Usually one member of our team stay closer just to see how I was doing.  I was very glad I had a very good team. I was glad for the patience and care my team had for each other. I was feeling guilty and bad because I was very slow.

When we reached our second camp, Shiptons, the team decided that I should stay there so I could get better for the next day at which point I would link up with them. I was ok with that if they could promise that once I linked up with them, then I would summit Lenana which they agreed to.  I was so glad not to sleep in the tent. For the first time on the trip I slept on bed and it was so much warmer and softer. Despite all the comfort the mountain could afford, my cold was till hard on my body.

At 8 am I heard Jeff say, “Rise and shine!”  That was the worst voice I heard; it meant another gruesome hike. I woke up and got my things ready. I was feeling better and stronger. After taking tea Jeff and I started hiking.  I was close with him this time until we got to a very steep place. He became too fast for me but I was happy that I had found a steady pace. I think we hiked for about 6 hours that day.  It would have been less hour if I wasn’t slow.  When we reached our the next camp, Austrian, just before point Lenana, I found out that two of my team mates were sick. I was surprised because they  looked fit in the beginning.  Jeff told me he would not be able to go to Lenana and I was furious, so he asked one of the porter to go with me. I did not even rest for 5 minutes before the porter and I left for the summit.

It took us about an hour to summit Lenana from there.  I was so proud and happy with myself. We took pictures then we started our hike down. When I got down I was told to rest for 30min and then prepare to keep going down because my team mates were sick and going down would make them better.  I took 5min of rest and then we started descending.

After an hour of going down, one of my team mates could not walk, so I helped give him a piggy back rides. Our goal was to reach the next camp down so we could put him on a stretcher. Coming down was as hard as going up but finally we arrived at the next camp.  We carried him on a stretcher and I think it took close to four hours. I was so exhausted because of carrying him. One guide had to be left behind with me because I could barely walk. It took me 8 hours to hike down to about 2000 metres from Point Lenana to Met Station.  I was so glad to see a bed but I still could not sleep well because my body was in so much pain.  However, after about half an hour I started feeling better and finally dozed off.

Anyways no amount of writing and talking could really express the experience we had on that mountain and if there is a chance for another hiking to Mount, I will still do it again.

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Mar
20
2016

Well after a number of targeted posts I want to give an overall summary of our trip.

We arrived at Old Moses gate of Mt Kenya last Saturday only to find that the the Kenya Wildlife Service is in the middle of paving the road so we were not allowed to drive on it. This meant 8km of hiking that we had not included in our timing.  Additionally, Steve already had quite a severe cold and was looking pretty bleary so it was slow going.  Luckily a truck from the paving company came by we flagged them down for a trip up the road to our first camp: Old Moses (3300m / 10,800ft).  The night was very clear and fairly cold and our adventure had begun.

Mount_Kenya_Climbing_Routes_and_Huts_photomap-en_V2

Hiking route map of Mt Kenya

Our first real day of hiking took us 6km to the Liki North Hut (4000m / 13,100ft).  The weather was beautiful and since Liki North Hut is a slight variation to the popular Sirimon route we did not see any other hikers.  Along the way we had time to walk out on exposed ridges so that the GPS and weather station could get a GSM signal and upload their data.

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-33

Hiking up the shoulder of Mt Kenya.

On Monday I planned to hike from Liki North to Austrian Hut with a break at Shiptons which turned out to be a rather aggressive schedule. We eventually got to Shiptons (4200m / 13,800ft) around 1pm but since Steve’s cold was still really hampering his efforts Jeff and Steve stayed at Shiptons to rest while Paul, Killah, Fender and I went on to Austrian Hut.

MtK_Night

The night sky from Liki North Camp

Most hiker’s summit the non-technical peak, Lenana with an early morning start from Shiptons and then return to Shiptons for breakfast before heading back out of the park.  Our schedule had us spend a night at Austrian Hut (4800m / 15,750ft) so that Paul and I could do the technical climb up Nelion with the GPS picoBRCK while Killah and Fender set up the Weather Station picoBRCK.  At almost 16,000ft, Austrian Hut is not an easy place to be, never mind get to.  The ascent from Shiptons is remarkably steep and there are a number of ridges to traverse as one goes around the mountain.  During previous ascents of Mt Kenya I have spent some time at Austrian Hut and I tried to brief the guys that this would NOT be a pleasant night. Half way to Austrian Fender really started to slow down. He had good spirits and a clear voice but simply said his body couldn’t go faster.

Meanwhile one of our porters had fallen and injured himself the previous day so our other porter was helping him get down to the gate after delivering the Weather Station and technical climbing gear to Austrian Hut.  We passed them coming back from Austrian and I asked Fender if he wanted to go with them back to Shiptons to stay the night.  However, because he had just done such a steep climb he was adamant that he did not want to go back down. I definitely could have pushed harder but, naively, I allowed him to keep coming.

We arrived at Austrian Hut around 7pm and Fender and Killah were so exhausted that they fell into bed immediately.  Paul and I stayed up prepping for the next days climb and making supper but only Killah managed to sit up for about 3 minutes to eat and then went back to sleep.

It was a restless night for all of us and I knew that Fender was awake for most of it based on his tossing and talking to Killah.  Paul and I got out of bed at 4AM and were gone by 5:15. You can read Paul’s post about the climb but suffice to say it was absolutely picture perfect.  The weather and rock conditions were ideal and our guide, Kim, knew the route like the back of his hand.

We arrived at the the summit of Nelion (5188m / 17,000ft) just in time to hear Steve (who had hiked from Shiptons that morning) loudly celebrating his summiting of Lenana (4985m / 16,350ft).  Meanwhile Killah was watching us as he set up the picoBRCK Weather Station and confirmed with the team back at the office that everything was working.

Paul and I descended the 15 rappels down to the base of Nelion and arrived back at Austrian Hut around 3:30PM only to find everybody gone and things an absolute mess.  At first we were really ticked off since we had had a long day and still had to hike down to Mackinders camp with our packs and climbing gear.  But we quickly deduced that people had been searching for meds and had left in a hurry.  So we cleaned up the space, took down the Weather Station.  (It’s a long story but unfortunately I never did manage to get permission from the KWS to leave a Weather Station set up at Austrian Hut.  However, since we had already committed to most of the expedition we decided to take the opportunity for a photo op.)

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-93

The picoBRCK Weather Station with Nelion (left) and Lenana peaks in the background.

Our porter took the Weather Station and climbing gear down to the next camp Mackinders (4200, 13,800ft) ahead of us and Paul and I followed with our guide from Nelion.  When we got to Mackinders we learned that Fender was still doing poorly and so the group had continued on with Fender on a stretcher with the KWS rescue team.  Steven was still going slow and Killah had now been called upon to help carry Fender so they left Killah, Fender, Steve’s packs as well as the weather station at Mackinders.

I did not want to leave Jeff to deal with all the decisions and  logistics so Paul and I had a 5min break and kept doing. It was dark by now so we just hiked by the light of our headlamps. We could see a group far off in the distance and after a few hours we eventually caught up to the whole group including the BRCK team and a number of stretcher bearers who had been called up to help with Fender.  We now had weak GSM reception every now and then and so I started contacting people and making hospital arrangements.

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-98

Steve (orange jacket) and Killah (green/yellow jacket) helping to carry Fender down to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.

We continued one for about 2 hours together but the stretcher carriers were really getting tired and the path was getting incredibly rocky so the chance of them dropping Fender was huge. Fender was coughing badly and groaning a lot but seemed to be lucid enough and getting impatient
with all the breaks. I knew we had dropped a lot of altitude and so I asked him a couple of times if he wanted to try walking and he always said yes. I introduced this idea to the head KWS medic and they were glad for the chance to stop carrying him. So I gave him my boots and some drink and he went off being held up by our porter and the head medic.  They moved really quickly after this and we were barely able to keep up.

At this point Steve had now dropped far behind.  Fortunately Paul and our guide chose to stick with him while Killah and I stayed with Fender.  We got to Met Station around 12am where a KWS truck was waiting. I arranged for some porters to get the extra bags and after some time we eventually left for Nanyuki. Fender was still mostly out of it and even puking at times.  About an hour down the road the truck broke down because of lack of brakes and we waited an hour for another vehicle.  We arrived at the gate only to be met by the same truck which was now “fixed”.  We headed off to Naro Moru to drop off some porters and finally got to Nanyuki Cottage Hospital around 2 or 3AM.

Fender’s O2 was 69% so they immediately admitted him and started him on IV and O2.  Killah and I simply lodged in a room down the hall and got
to bed around 4AM: it had been a full  24hr day for both of us.  Meanwhile Steve and Paul had showed up at Met Station around 2am in the morning. Another KWS group had also met them along the way and encouraged Steve to keep going. So Steve, Paul and Jeff slept at Met Station.

The nurse woke us at 6:30AM and couldn’t believe we were still sleeping even though she new we had got to be at 4AM 🙂  We talked to the doctor in the morning and Fender officially diagnosed him with pulmonary edema.  The doc was pretty clear that he’d probably be OK by noon that day but when they checked his O2 it was too low and a chest x-ray revealed that he still had fluid in his lungs.

The rest of the group headed home on Wed afternoon after a nice lunch while Fender and I spent one more day at the hospital to allow him to fully recover.

And that was our Mt Kenya expedition.

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-60_1_2_3

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The day we arrived in Nairobi we learned that a group of university students, that had started with us from Old Moses, also had a member fall ill with pulmonary edema.  Unfortunately they were caught in a storm on the other side of the mountain from us and were unable to descend to a lower elevation or get to a hospital.  She passed away at Shiptons that night.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family and classmates.

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Mar
18
2016

Mt. Kenya – the Summit and Back – by Paul Birkelo

MtKenya_feature

This is the third BRCK expedition I’ve had the privilege to participate in. As one of only two or three people on the now ~50 strong BRCK team who didn’t grow up in Kenya, I’m routinely amazed at the opportunities they’ve given me to explore this beautiful country. It’s always a privilege when you get to do the things you love and call it “work”, but doubly so when the team you get to work with is as dedicated and as much fun to travel with as the folks at BRCK.

Everyone who goes on a BRCK expedition has to have a job – a role to fill. In my case, it was logistics and media, specifically video. As with previous expeditions, we’ll be sharing a more in depth view of what it’s like to work with technology in challenging environments over the coming weeks as we edit the raw footage. My other contributions to the team had to do with the fact that I spent seven years as a whitewater rafting guide in Colorado before moving into the tech world, where I also spent a good deal of time climbing mountains and organizing expeditions.

For most people, Kenya typically conjures up thoughts of wide open savannahs and lion spotting on safari, but it is also home to the second tallest mountain in Africa. The summit of Mt. Kenya stands at 17,057 feet, much higher than the tallest peak that I had ever climbed, the 14,433-foot tall Mt. Elbert, the highest point in Colorado.

Flight of Fancy_small

It’s also a stunningly severe mountain, with sharp, jagged peaks jutting into the sky, the remnants of an eroded volcanic cone. Kilimanjaro gets all the attention in Africa, at 19,341 feet above sea level, but it’s basically a big hill. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an impressive and very, very big hill, but you can ride a bicycle to the top. The majority of visitors to Mt. Kenya only climb to Point Lenana at 16,355 feet, as the two tallest peaks on the mountain – Nelion (17,021 ft.) and Batian (17,057 ft.) – require the use of ropes and high alpine climbing experience.

The long and short of it is that, while I certainly haven’t seen every mountain in the world, I have seen quite a few, and Mt. Kenya is hands down the most spectacular I’ve ever come across. As a lone peak – it’s nearest significant neighbor is Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, visible from the summit but still a few hundred miles away – Mt. Kenya is home to an entirely unique ecosystem. The Yellowwood forests at the base host buffalo and numerous other types of wildlife. We found elephant droppings and tracks as high as 13,100 feet while camping at Liki North hut.

The higher altitudes feature unique species of giant groundsels found only on Mt. Kenya. The eastern side of the mountain resembles a moonscape, and looks out on spectacular 2,000 foot-plus cliffs plunging into the Gorges Valley. The western side lays claim to the infamous “vertical bog”, where the trail winds through steep, muddy marsh and moorland. Near the summit, several glaciers (each getting rapidly smaller every year) empty into emerald green tarns.

Being one of only a few mountains of similar height positioned almost exactly on the equator, Mt. Kenya is of particular interest to meteorologists, ecologists, and climate scientists. There are a multitude of permanent weather stations all over the mountain. Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), who manage the park that encompasses the mountain, do a rather good job of maintaining the trails (you won’t see the trash littering the hillside that you frequently do on other hiking trails in the region), and the huts are all well maintained. The Mountain Club of Kenya and various other organizations have put a lot of effort into preserving and limiting the human impact on the fragile ecosystems represented on the mountain.

Groundsels and Summit

As you may have read in previous posts, BRCK started developing the picoBRCK in response to demand from a wide variety of people needing to live stream data from sensors in remote, hard-to-get-to and hard-to-survive-in places where electronics typically can’t be used. There are plenty of weather stations on Mt. Kenya, but many are roughly the size of a shipping container and require a permanent power supply and frequent manned inspection. These provide an incredible amount of information about the climate on the mountain, but only from a single point.

Many of the people we talk to require a much broader view of the ecosystems they’re trying to monitor – hundreds, even thousands, of very small, unobtrusive sensors feeding data in real time across hundreds of square miles monitoring water quality in the Mara River, tracking poaching kills via the presence of vultures, avoiding human wildlife conflict by alerting farmers to the presence of lions or crop-destroying elephants, tracking water distribution and the breakdown of remote irrigation pumps, or modeling micro-climates around mountains. To do these things, sensors need to be able to communicate across vast distances using existing infrastructure, be small and blend into the environment, be rugged and durable, fully self-powered, have no negative environmental effects themselves, and be extremely low-cost.

The picoBRCK is meant to do all of these things, and what better place to test its effectiveness than on the top of a 17,000 foot mountain? Unfortunately, KWS did not give us permission to leave the picoBRCK and weather station on the summit for a year, like we had hoped, and to be clear, that one data point would not have been particularly useful to climate scientists in and of itself. The purpose of this trip was not to revolutionize our understanding of the climate on Mt. Kenya – that might come later with the deployment of IoT en masse – but to test the picoBRCK’s capabilities outside the office, in a truly extreme and challenging environment.

 

The Climb

To do that, we were determined to put a picoBRCK on the summit, even if only for a short stay. Summiting a 17,000 foot mountain is no small task, especially when the last 1,000 vertical feet require technical climbing. True to BRCK style, our original plan was to go entirely unsupported – no porters, no guides, making our way on our own. That plan encountered a number of setbacks. With the six of us each carrying a 50 lb. pack, we still had two packs left over full of picoBRCK, weather station, and climbing kit. Like it or not, we were going to need some porters.

DCIM100GOPROG0010112.

To make matters worse, Reg Orton (BRCK’s CTO) came down with appendicitis shortly before the trip. Reg, Kurt, and I were the only experienced climbers on the team, and Reg had the biggest rack (the collection of cams, nuts, and other protection that climbers use to stop a fall) and the most lead experience. Kurt had attempted to summit Mt. Kenya twice; he and his partner once got off route and the second time were turned back by weather and sickness. He knew the most about the mountain, particularly the fact that finding the route up Nelion can be extremely difficult. Most trip reports of unguided ascents recommend tackling the climb over a period of two days, bivying in one of a couple tin shacks bolted to the side of the rock face.

Howell Hut4

Without Reg, Kurt and I were forced to readjust our plans. We knew we would move slowly – I had never climbed a mountain this big, and hadn’t done a multi-pitch ascent with complicated route finding in over 10 years. The thought of staying the night at 17,000 feet was not a pleasant one. Even for someone in great physical shape, without taking the time to acclimatize to the altitude, it’s a guaranteed night of headache, nausea, and sleeplessness. It also would have made our trip take a minimum of 10 days, something our schedule at the office wouldn’t allow (we do actually have real jobs and real deadlines at BRCK, it turns out).

We were left with one choice – we needed to summit and do our testing in one day. To do that, we’d have to give up on making it to the true summit, Batian (17,057 ft.). To climb Batian at this time of year requires climbing Nelion (17,021 ft.) first, rappelling and traversing to Batian via the Gates of the Mist. Making that traverse would add hours to our day, something we simply couldn’t afford, so we set our sights on Nelion.

Summit at Sunset

We would also need a guide. One of the things I like best about working with the BRCK team is getting the chance to share stories about Africa that most people in the rest of the world would never get to see. I routinely get to meet remarkable people doing remarkable things. Our guide Kim has been leading climbers up Mt. Kenya for 22 years. As a member of the technical rescue team on Mt. Kenya, Kim has saved dozens of lives (and even saved a few of our team when things went south later in our trip). A consummate professional, Kim provided all the rack we needed, and knew the route well enough to get us up to the top and back down in one day.

Kim

We met Kim at Austrian Hut on the southeast side of the summit the night before our climb. At 15,750 feet, the altitude was already getting to some of us. Steve and Jeff had stayed behind at Shiptons Hut that night (13,950 feet), after Steve started showing the effects of exhaustion and altitude. Leaving them around 2pm that day, Killah, Fender, Kurt, and I continued around the summit to Austrian Hut. The plan was for Killah and Fender to set up the weather station at the hut the next day, while Kurt and I climbed with the picoBRCK and our GPS tracker to the top of Nelion. We were all moving slowly and feeling quite miserable, so we didn’t think much of it when Fender climbed straight into his bag and went to sleep without eating that night.

After prepping our kit and going through the plan with Kim, Kurt and I woke at 4am the next morning to start our trek across the Lewis Glacier. It only took about 10-20 minutes to get across, but it’s steep and icy, so crampons and ice axe were required. One of the things we had hoped to do (and still might in a future expedition) was focus a webcam on the glacier to track its recession. Kim predicted it only has five years left before it melts away completely, and Kurt reckoned it’s at least 50% smaller than it was when he last climbed it 10 years ago.

Lewis Glacier

After crossing the ice, it was a short scramble across a rubble and scree field to the base of the climb. This time of year, it’s summer on the south side of the mountain and winter on the north. Most people choose to climb Batian (the tallest peak) via the North Face Standard Route, but this was smattered with snow and ice when we were making our way up. The southeast face of Nelion, on the other hand, was getting baked by the summer sun. We encountered small pockets of snow and ice towards the top, but the rock was actually warm to the touch, and we both found ourselves sweating and shedding layers as we went up.

The climb itself was not actually technically difficult (don’t picture dramatic, overhanging cliffs where you have to pull yourself up by your fingertips). The hardest moves along the way are generally rated a 5.8 or 5.9 (using the American scale). But we were wearing boots, not rock shoes, and carrying a pack full of picoBRCK tech. Thanks to the altitude, neither of us had eaten or slept well in two days, and at 15 pitches (each pitch is essentially the length of a rope, at the end of which, the climbers have to build an anchor, swap who’s on belay, and start again) it’s a long climb. If we hadn’t had Kim, it easily would have taken us 20-plus hours to get up and down.

Luckily, Kim knew the route well enough that we were able to simul-climb at least eight pitches. Simul-climbing means tying to each other with the rope, but climbing together without belaying from an anchor. We moved much faster, but it meant if one climber fell, the other two would have to catch him without being anchored to the rock. Staring down a 1,000 foot vertical drop on either side while not being anchored is an exhilarating way to climb, to say the least. The southeast face of Nelion is a very exposed route, and we frequently found ourselves huddled on a ledge barely big enough for the three of us, gazing out into the abyss.

Ledge

I’m sad to say, when we made it to the top, there was very little fanfare. The last pitch was a simul-climb, and we stumbled our way up to the tallest rock. With a muted “hurray”, we dumped our packs and sat down to rest our shaking legs. I had just set my new altitude record at 17,021 feet. Much as I wanted to be overjoyed, I was mostly focused on breathing. While Kurt and I tried to force down some lunch, Kim enjoyed a cigarette or two – he does this three times a week during the busy season and doesn’t feel the altitude at all.

 

Kurt then broke out the picoBRCK. It was time to see if we were gathering and transmitting data like we hoped. Despite clear line of sight, though, we couldn’t get a lock on the nearest GSM tower. The picoBRCK was logging data, but it wasn’t sending. We were shattered, but had no time to troubleshoot the issue. Kurt is the lead electrical engineer at BRCK, and will share some of his insights into the technical things we learned on this expedition. For my part, I learned a lot about the constraints facing users operating in extreme environments.

picoBRCK on summit

When you’re cold and can barely breathe, having to remove fiddly little screws to access your technology isn’t an option. When you have to carry all of your kit on your back, every ounce counts, and needing to carry specialized tools (or any tools at all) is a problem. We actually removed the screws from the picoBRCK’s faceplate and replaced them with duct tape, so as not to have to carry an allen set. With extremely limited time in which to work, idiot-proof troubleshooting is essential. These and many more learnings will no doubt make it into the next revision of the picoBRCK’s design.

After about 20 minutes of admiring the view (and fiddling with the tech), it was time to head down. The route down consisted of about 14 rappels with a few down-climbs in between. The rappel points were bolted about 15 years ago, and the bolts are all in pretty good condition. The anchors all feel solid, though only a few have a backup in place. By the time we were heading down (around 1pm), the clouds had started to move in. I’ll never forget the second rappel. The first truly vertical ledge we stepped over, with fog hiding the bottom, all three of us wound up on a ledge maybe a foot wide, floating on an island in the clouds. To say it was a surreal, heart-fluttering experience doesn’t even begin to capture it.

Rappel

The rest of the route down went without incident. We collected our crampons and axes at the foot of the glacier and made our way back across. We staggered back into Austrian Hut around 3:30 or 4pm. Despite being utterly exhausted, the sense of accomplishment was finally starting to hit us. We may not have made it to the tallest point on the mountain (Nelion is 36 feet shy of Batian), but it was an incredible experience, and the things we learned on this trip will come with us if and when we go back to make things work on the true summit. I will always be incredibly grateful to all of my colleagues, especially Kurt and Kim, for making this possible.

Austrian Hut

Speaking of colleagues, Kurt and I wound up back at Austrian Hut to find all of them gone. There was no sign of Killah or Fender, whom we had left in the hut that morning, and we had no idea if Steve and Jeff had made their way over from Shiptons that day. There was a huge mess around our room in the hut. My backpack had been torn into and stuff lay scattered. The mess kit and food were all still out and not cleaned. More perplexingly, the weather station was still up (the guys were to have taken it down and packed it back up by now).

It took Kurt and me a few minutes to realize that the first aid kit was also out (it had been buried in my pack), and that the guys had left behind things that they never would have left if they hadn’t been facing an emergency. We remembered that Fender had been moving extremely slowly when we came into camp the previous night, and hadn’t been feeling good when we all went to bed. The altitude was getting to all of us, and we knew that people had been airlifted off the mountain just that week after showing signs of acute mountain sickness and the beginnings of high altitude pulmonary edema.

Wanting nothing more than to rest, we packed everything up as quickly as we could and headed down to our rendezvous point at Mackinders Hut, about four to five kilometers away. Thus began a 22-hour odyssey to get everyone off the mountain as quickly as possible, ending in Nanyuki hospital. But I write this story safe and sound in Nairobi, and what happened in between is someone else’s to tell.

(Note: credit for the aerial photograph of the summit of Mt. Kenya above goes to Jeff Kirkpatrick – our guide, photographer, and biology teacher extraordinaire.)

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I can barely move my legs anymore right now. I guess I deserve all of it for choosing to climb Mt. Kenya without any training in the days leading up. Instead, we were spending late nights at the lab coding and building two picoBRCKs that we took with us up the mountain. Despite not feeling my toes afterward (I know it could’ve been worse) , I’d say the expedition was totally worth it!

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-1

We learnt a lot up on Mt. Kenya… Including how to recognize Canadian humor. But more importantly, we figured out more ways of making picoBRCK better when we tested its limits.

As you can imagine, the climb wasn’t very kind to us, we were after all trying to conquer the mountain, it had to resist. On our way up, one of our potters fell and got seriously injured. During his fall, the frame of the weather station we were carrying up got damaged. If you cant fix it with duck tape, you are not using enough duck tape… I guess… So we fixed the broken parts. Eventually, we made it to Austrian Hut, 4790m above the sea, from Old Moses via Liki North and Shiptons Huts. We setup the weather station at Austrian Hut and let it run for the day. Meanwhile, Kurt and Paul took the GPS picoBRCK up Nelion, the second highest peak in Kenya. Our goal was that we would also make a “BRCK rout” up Mt. Kenya based on GPS data collected by picoBRCK.

Sadly, one of the team members fell ill on the mountain. We had to get him down to lower altitudes as fast as we could.

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-97

We had also learnt earlier that we couldn’t get a permit to leave the weather station on the mountain, so we had to go back down with it. This gives us a chance to add more features to try and overcome the challenges we faced on Mt. Kenya.

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-92

So this is what we will try to overcome:

  1. 1. Mt. Kenya is one of the most rugged terrains in Africa. For most part of the expedition, there was no cell reception. We want picoBRCK to overcome this problem.
  2. We observed that batteries are not as efficient in cold conditions. Charging is also inhibited.
  3. When dealing with line of sight connections at incredible distances as was in our situation, it is important to optimize data transfer. It might not be a good idea to transmit too much data at once. You run the risk of losing a connection midway.

Mount Kenya BRCK Expedition-94

As promised, in my next update, I will provide a link to github with code and instructions on how to transmit real time images at microcontroller levels.

Killah
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