Meshtastic is a relatively new thing in the internet of things (IOT) world and is gaining traction in the U.K. at the moment.
So what is Meshtastic?
Meshtastic is an open source, off-grid, decentralised mesh network built to run on affordable, low-power devices on the 868Mhz industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) band. (Some devices can also run on the 433Mhz 70cm HAM band.)
The ISM band is licence free but, has limits on the RF power levels that can be used. The one plus over the HAM bands is that you can legally transfer encrypted messages over the ISM band making it secure.
The best way to think of Meshtastic is a radio version of the online decentralised Matrix chat system but, without the large server requirements and ever growing database!
There are quite a few Meshtastic compatible devices on the market today with many costing around the £20 mark whilst others like the LillyGo T-Echo costing over £100 in the U.K. even though they are less than half the price in the USA.
Since I’m just starting out on my Meshtastic adventure I thought I’d start with a pair of Heltec ESP32 v3 devices that are normally readily available on Amazon but, due to the current push to build a U.K. wide mesh, they are currently out of stock pretty much everywhere.
Loading the Meshtastic firmware onto the devices is fairly straight forward and can be done using the web installer via either the Edge or Chromium web browsers.
(Note: If using Windows O/S you will need to install some drivers from the Meshtastic website to be able to communicate with the devices)
Having neither of the two browsers and being a Linux command line junkie I decided to use the Python programme to load the firmware onto the two devices. It’s worth noting that you don’t need any drivers to be able to communicate with the devices if you’re using either Debian or one of the many Ubuntu flavours of Linux O/S.
Using the Python command line program sounds like a more complicated approach but, in reality it’s super simple, extremely reliable, quick and if like me you use a Linux PC in the radio shack then you most likely already have most of what you need to get the job done. Just follow the simple steps as laid out on the Meshtastic web site and you’ll have the firmware loaded in no time at all.
The firmware takes less than a minute to copy across to the Heltec device and is automatically rebooted ready for configuration once the transfer has completed.
It is possible to configure the device via the command line tool however, since there is a nice GUI app for both Apple iOS and Android devices I decided to install the Meshtastic app on my iPad and connect to the device via Bluetooth to configure it.
Once you’ve got the Meshtastic app installed on your device and have connected via Bluetooth you’ll be ready to start configuring the device to join the mesh. The first thing you want to do is set the region. This is different in each country but, in the UK we use the EU_868 region settings. This will set the device to use the 868Mhz ISM band which is the band being used to build the U.K. wide mesh.
There is a multitude of configuration options within the app which I will go into in greater detail in a series of articles at a later date.
For those of you that, like me aren’t near any other nodes you can connect the devices to the internet and use the Meshtastic MQTT server to communicate with other nodes. This of course isn’t off-grid but, it will get you started until the mesh grows into your local area at which point your device will automatically start communicating with the other nodes over radio.
Once you are connected to either the MQTT server or other nodes via radio you will see the other node details appear in the Meshtastic app. It’s interesting to look at the information and see signal strengths and traffic levels etc for each node.
There are a multitude of cases available for the Heltec v3 devices, especially if you have access to a 3D printer. One of the nicest cases I have seen is the Bender from IKB3D (I know, it’s a strange name!) but, it really is a super little case for the Heltec series of devices.
You can either buy the 3D print files for £8.99 and print it yourself or just order a pre-printed and assembled case directly from the website although, due to demand there is a long lead time currently.
More soon …