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New JPL technology could help track firefighters and fight terrorists through thick concrete, underground tunnels, caves or under ice

Seventeen years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts, six firefighters who were dispatched to a smoke-filled warehouse lost their lives as they were unable to find an exit before running out of oxygen.  A group of scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are working on a tracking system called “Pointer,” that could save firefighters’ lives around the world. The lead researcher at JPL said the device of this kind could not only help firefighters, but could be used for search-and-rescue efforts, the military and even in space.


Arumugam said a device of this type could be a lifesaver for future search-and-rescue teams, but has wide potential application beyond that. “POINTER could be used in space robotics,” he said. “It could be used for tracking robots in underground tunnels, caves or under ice. They need to be able to navigate themselves, and we don’t have sensors today that would be able to track them. For us, this is a great opportunity to develop a technology for NASA and non-NASA uses.”


Such technology shall also be used in Urban Warfare like current battle of U.S.-backed Iraq’s forces to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS which requires street by street, house by house, room by room operation through thick concrete jungle.


Currently firefighters use radios, thermal imaging cameras, GPS and an alert system to communicate and find their way when trapped in a structure fire; however each of those devices has limitations. However, GPS and radio signals can often be blocked inside of steel and concrete buildings.  “Inside a structure fire, everything is noisy. There is a lot going on. We may or may not be able to hear (a device), and even if we do hear it, we not be able to exactly pinpoint where (the firefighter) is,” Burbank Fire Battalion Chief Ron Barone said.


In August, POINTER was successfully demonstrated for top leadership at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, which has funded its development. “To this day, the ability to track and locate first responders is a number one priority for disaster agencies across the country,” said Greg Price, DHS First Responder Technologies Division director. “It’s truly a Holy Grail capability that doesn’t exist today.  If the POINTER project continues along its current path of success, first responders will be safer in the future.


Although there is interest in what JPL’s device can do, the technology is being developed further – mainly to make it smaller so it can be placed in a pocket or on a belt buckle. But doing something like that could take a few years.


Pointer technology

POINTER is both a technological and a mathematical breakthrough. JPL’s Darmindra Arumugam solved a problem researchers had been looking at since the 1970s.


“Most of that research has focused on radio waves, which have the advantage of propagating energy over long distances. That’s made them ideal for communications and sensory technologies like radar. But they’re also notoriously unpredictable indoors: they ricochet off walls and won’t penetrate far underground. This is why you might lose your phone signal when you enter a steel-reinforced building or walk down to a basement,” writes Andrew Good Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


Instead, Arumugam started looking at electromagnetic fields — quasistatic fields, to be exact. These fields have been largely overlooked by researchers because they have short ranges. They’re limited to just a few hundred yards, or meters, but they don’t behave like waves. They can get around walls, offering increased non-line-of-sight capabilities.


The fields can also be tweaked to different sizes and wavelengths. Whereas waves represent energy in constant motion over time, fields can be stationary, or can change so slowly that they appear stationary (known as quasi-stationary or quasi-static). They can even be used to sense the different orientations of devices.


That last part is important. A tracking device emitting a quasi-static field would tell a receiver where it was in space, plus which way it was facing. It could tell a team commander whether a firefighter is crawling along the ground or is stationary, facing down on the floor — suggesting that person may have stopped moving.


All of this involves complicated mathematics. Arumugam developed the theory, technique and algorithms that can analyze both the electrical and the magnetic components of quasistatic fields. These algorithms are the key to being able to interpret the quasistatic fields and their signaling.


A pocket-sized lifesaver

The technology is now being developed further so that it can be miniaturized and prepared for commercialization. Besides first responders, the need for this technology spans industrial, military and space applications.


Arumugam and his team put together a field transmitter that fits on a backpack, and they’ve shown it can be shrunk down to a device that weighs 0.4 ounces (11.7 grams). Over the next few years, JPL will be working to shrink POINTER even further, until a transmitter is small enough to fit into a pocket or on a belt buckle.


Ed Chow, manager of JPL’s Civil Program Office and POINTER program manager, said a cellphone-sized tracker would integrate well with another first responder technology called AUDREY. This artificial intelligence system would distribute real-time data across a team of first responders, but distributing relevant information depends on knowing each member’s exact location in the field.


“AUDREY is trying to provide suggested directions for firefighters lost in smoke,” Chow said. “But without knowing each member’s exact position and orientation, you can’t make those kinds of suggestions.”




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