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.
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.
China develops AI radar for underground space detection in cities
Chinese researchers have developed a new 3D radar with artificial intelligence (AI), offering urban underground space detection a higher accuracy than previous generations. The ground penetrating radar, Eagle Eye-A, was designed and built by a research institute affiliated with the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp.
Jiao Xiaoliang, director of the institute’s science and technology committee, said the newly-developed radar is capable of detecting soil diseases and pipelines as deep as six meters underground, with a fast response and no harm to the environment. Its detection accuracy rate is over 90 percent and its false alarm rate is less than 5 percent.
Urban underground space is always at risk of road collapses and pipeline leakages. With its AI system, the new radar will greatly boost the efficiency of auto-detection and identification while requiring less manpower in data processing. The radar is equipped with both BeiDou satellite navigation and GPS systems, which can help obtain high precision positioning of underground targets.
Space technology allows precise navigation without GNSS
The German Aerospace research center DLR developed an optical navigation and inspection system for use in environments where position determination is not possible via a satellite navigation system such as GPS or Galileo. The Integrated Positioning System (IPS) can accurately determine one’s own position without additional “prior knowledge” of the environment and without external reference points. Originally developed for missions in outer space, the scientists also see possible applications in tunnels, mines or industrial facilities.
The technology behind the Integrated Positioning System is a multi-sensor system. This draws upon various measurement techniques, which come together as so to minimize the risk of errors. Speaking with EE News Europe, the manager behind the Integrated Positioning System project – Anko Börner – explains: “The system can be used, for example, to inspect industrial plants or mines, but also to support autonomous driving.” Börner adds: “They are, so to speak, the technical eye and provide comprehensive and valuable data. Just as the eye is the most important sensory organ for humans, optical systems are the primary sensor for detecting the surroundings of technical devices.”
To confirm the reliability of the navigation results an indoor experiment was conducted at the DLR offices in Berlin-Adlershof. For this, fifteen 15 independent trials were conducted, each started at a fixed point. The experiment took place under real life conditions, such as with changing lighting, low texturing and optical disturbances generated by moving people along office corridors.
Working models of the Integrated Positioning System have been produced. An example is the DMT PILOT 3D. This technology was produced in cooperation with DLR and it provided accurate altitude determination as well as 3D documentation, to assist with aircraft navigation. As with the core technology, the DMT PILOT 3D, which comes in the form of a portable device, was originally designed for a non-Earth related purpose: to assist with missions to Mars. The technology has also been used with the inspection of mines and ships. Future developments with optical sensor systems include robotics and drones, many of which will be international collaborations.
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.
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.
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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