Practical Range Test Results

New Meshtastic Range - 254km (158 miles)

WARNING: This will be a long post! :melting_face: Canadian apologies in advance.

NOTE: If you right-click and open images in new tab, you will be able to see full quality.

Achieving large ranges with the weather balloon was a really great experience, and even aside from the record range able to be achieved, it was just damn awesome to see what other things Meshtastic was capable of. Shout-out to my Calgary Meshtastic pals StarWatcher, Rook and CVR, as the previous record would never have happened without their knowledge, dedication and enthusiasm.

That being said, for a while I keep hearing snippets of “using a balloon is cheating” or “that’s just using trickery to get that far” or people replying “ya but that was using a balloon” (almost as to suggest that using aerial devices use some sort of quantum bypass for signal distance).

For a while now I’ve been mulling over ways to get maximum distance to two ground point locations, using practical hardware (no communication towers, or yagi antennas). LoRa already has such a generous link budget, that it should be technically possible to get better range even with stock antennas, as long as one can get line of sight. Furthermore, with the last 2 distance records using only T-beam devices, I also wanted to demonstrate that the device hardware used, was NOT a limiting factor for practical distances.

This journey starts a while back with a Router/Repeater node placed near the peak of a mountain (Hailstone Butte) in the Canadian Rockies meant to serve the public mesh in Calgary and the southern Alberta Foothills. It worked, but had to go through a few iterations (and yet another cold-weather version to come) before it was decent enough to be left alone indefinitely. The first couple versions used the original RAK Wireless solar enclosure to house the RAK4631 hardware. At 80mA, the built-in solar panel just wasn’t enough to keep the device charged over long periods. After then switching to a 200mA solar panel with a similar setup in another location I had great results, but it was also placed for optimal sun coverage. The Hailstone Butte node, unfortunately would need to face east due to terrain.

I decided to use the popular Soshine panel with Keith’s great 3D printed mount design. A 5 watt USB panel. These style of panels can be found for cheap now due to the flood of Ring and Ring-style cameras on the market. On top of that, they’re already built for outdoor weather, and using USB they’re already well suited at 5v power for the RAK devices. Since I was also prioritizing distance over nearby coverage, I decided to use an outdoor 5.8dBi antenna.

After resolving a few mounting challenges, this became the new repeater/router node:

Currently this is the visibility cloak using the mapping tool at heywhatsthat:

As you can see, the bottom-right corner shows a sliver of LOS reaching over the Canada/US border. The Sweet Grass Hills in Northeast Montana offer some mountains in the middle of the flat plains. Upon closer inspection, one of them called West Butte offered a possible location to send/receive a signal:

Unfortunately, the signal fresnel zone shows it’s more than 60% blocked which is usually a no-go. However, i’ve experienced this in the past while still getting a signal. I believe this is a combination of map data not being exact and the resilience of the LoRa protocol. At this point it was when I decided to take a chance… ROAD TRIP! If nothing, it would be a fun adventure.

Since I was going solo, I reported to a few people of my intended trip route and expected return time (always do this on any hike, no matter how small!!!). Of course, I decided to take this trip during a “Severe Heat Warning” in the area. I left very early in the morning so I could get a head start to beat the heat. After a 3 hour (and very scenic) drive, I arrived at the Coutts border crossing. After a few minutes I was able to convince the customs officer that I would be fine on my own. Just before I crossed over into the USA, I was even able to see the West Butte in the distance:

Then I found myself in the tiny little town of Sunburst. Named very well, as I had to make full use of sunglasses and roof visors as the sun was rising. Being in a different country, seeing the Canadian and US flags together made me feel welcome:

The town is so small, I didn’t even see a gas station. However if you’re ever in the area, make sure to get your supplies from Sunburst Mercantile. A lovely mini-grocery store with very friendly staff. I appreciate the use of their VERY clean and spotless washroom (bathroom for US folks).

After a 30 minute drive east I found myself finally near the base of the West Butte. I had to check my AllTrails map for this, as part of the area is a private property cattle ranch. After consulting the maps, I made my way up towards the peak. However, halfway up I started to get spotty signals already from the Calgary mesh! As the hike up the mountain was taking longer than usual, and the day was starting to heat up fast, I made the decision to get to the first open area near the first peak and attempt to get the signal data there (and enjoy the view of course):

Calgary is somewhere out there:

After finding a nice place to sit and take measurements, I proceed to first take a reading with a RAK4631 device, getting a direct trace route of 255km (254km actual) to the Hailstone Butte node Repeater/Router:

Yes, you are correct. That is a your average small little 2dBi LoRa antenna. When I measured the SWR on this one, it was just below 1.5.

Next I performed the same test with a Heltec v3. This time with a ZIISOR 3dBi 90 degree antenna (TX915-JKS-20 SMA-J) :

Meshtastic Technical Data…

Receiving Node:

(sorry, time stamp sync was off on that one)

Sending Node (RAK4631):

Sending Node (Heltec v3):

Direct Message ACK (RAK4631):

Direct Message ACK (Heltec v3):

Direct Message Received from a Calgary mesh user (Android - T-Beam):

He was also kind enough to send some telemetry info from his end (thank you Drake):

Message sent to the Primary public Calgary mesh channel:

It was about this time that things were heating up. It was time to head back down the mountain. The heat hit 36 degrees Celsius (97 Fahrenheit) and even with plenty of fluids and sun protection, the physical exertion in that heat was getting to be too much. If I spent any more time in it, i’m pretty sure heatstroke was coming. So I just wanted to take this time to thank this bush:

Its shade allowed me time to recuperate and recharge enough to get back to my vehicle safely.

I think one of the neat and notable things with this range attempt, was that both the US and Canada were involved on this one. So thank you to our American folks for letting me come visit your lovely country to make this possible!

Hopefully this new (somewhat more practical) range test result will put some comments to rest!

Here’s some more data (and yes it appears that almost all of the fresnel zone was blocked where I took measurements, but again as mentioned before I think this is due to the resilience of the LoRa protocol, and the accuracy of the mapping tools:

Device: RAK4631 Core Module with RAK5005-O Base Board
Firmware: 2.1.17 beta
Antenna: 902-928MHz 5.8 dBi Slinkdsco Outdoor with IPX/u.fl N Type Female Pigtail adapter
GPS Module: None (Fixed Location)

Channel Setting: Default Long_Fast
Frequency: 915MHz
Bandwidth: 250
Spread Factor: 11
Coding Rate: 4/8
RX Boosted Gain: Enabled
Device Role: Router & Client

Geographical: Hailstone Butte, Kananaskis AB, Canada
GPS Coordinates: 50.21014, -114.45600
Altitude: 2.3km (1.4 miles)


Device: RAK4631 Core Module with RAK19003 Mini Base Board
Firmware: 2.1.18 alpha
Antenna: Standard LoRa 915MHz 60mm 2dBi Omnidirectional
GPS Module: RAK12500 (u-blox ZOE-M8Q)

Channel Setting: Default Long_Fast
Frequency: 915MHz
Bandwidth: 250
Spread Factor: 11
Coding Rate: 4/8
RX Boosted Gain: Enabled
Device Role: Client

Geographical: West Butte, Toole County MT, USA
GPS Coordinates: 48.92749, -111.54013
Altitude: 1.8km (1.1 miles)

Device: Heltec Lora32 v3
Firmware: 2.1.17 beta
Antenna: ZIISOR 915MHz 195mm 3dBi 90 degree Omnidirectional (TX915-JKS-20)
GPS Module: None (using Apple iPhone XR device GPS)

Channel Setting: Default Long_Fast
Frequency: 915MHz
Bandwidth: 250
Spread Factor: 11
Coding Rate: 4/8
RX Boosted Gain: Disabled
Device Role: Client

Geographical: West Butte, Toole County MT, USA
GPS Coordinates: 48.92746, -111.54018
Altitude: 1.8km (1.1 miles)