By Jane Jerrard
Published Tuesday, May 21, 2013
| From the July 2013 Issue of FireRescue
The fire service is still searching for an affordable, reliable system that can locate individual firefighters inside a structure and in low-visibility conditions where GPS is not available—but that search may be over soon. Cambridge Consultants (CC), an international product development and technology consultant company, is working on a unique indoor tracking system that incorporates sensors commonly found in smartphones.
“Reliable & Robust”
Hugh Burchett, director of defense and security business for CC, says the company has been “active in location and tracking systems for years. This [indoor tracking system] came out of looking at the limitations of standard GPS signals indoors.” Developers at CC had been thinking of broader applications for indoor tracking; using a system to locate firefighters seemed like the perfect situation for how it could be used.
“In Europe and the U.K., [fire departments] do things differently,” Burchett points out. “In the U.S., there is a desire to enter a building very rapidly to suppress the fire and rescue anyone inside. There are significant implications for firefighter safety and tracking with this approach, because there’s simply no time to set up a tracking system on scene.”
To meet the U.S. fire service’s “need for speed,” CC is working on a seamless tracking system that requires no set-up. “It has to be reliable and robust,” Burchett stresses. “And we want to develop systems that use straightforward technology.”
Smart Sensors, Superior Algorithm
The indoor tracking system that CC is developing already differs significantly from others on the market. For one thing, Burchett explains, current tracking devices typically rely on radio frequency (RF) signals from Wi-Fi access points, GPS signals (which firefighters know aren’t reliable inside all structures), or expensive, high-quality sensors.
The CC system will have built-in affordability and ease of use because it’s based on the foundation of tracking technology already found in today’s smartphones, including accelerometers (which can measure the wearer’s acceleration of movement), gyroscopes (which help measure orientation), magnetometers (which act as a compass) and pressure sensors (which help pinpoint altitude).
“We’ve taken components out [of smartphones]—effectively, just those sensors—and will use them specifically with an algorithm,” Burchett explains. “So the GPS ‘hands over’ locating data to an indoor tracking system.”
Burchett is confident that regardless of the sensors other companies use, the experts at CC have written a more intelligent algorithm for their system that will do a better job of compiling and correcting the locating information taken from sensors.
What Will It Look Like?
While developers have selected the sensors and the algorithm, CC is still in the early stages of creating the tracking system. [insert photos about here] According to Burchett, the company has contacted a number of vendors about producing the final system components, but there’s no release date as of yet, and the developers are not yet ready to test the product with fire departments.
However, those working on the system have a good idea of how the product will look to users. “The concept would be that firefighters are carrying a piece of equipment that might be part of their radio device, or might be a separate but small piece of equipment,” Burchett explains. “The system collects their location information and transfers it [when asked] to a smartphone, tablet, etc., at a command center.” The transmission will be over a short-range radio link, as used by current tracking systems. “This works well,” Burchett says. “Any radio system should be able to do this.”
In the command center, he says, “The system will use the same computer equipment already out there.” No special laptop or device will need to be added. A firefighter’s location might show up imposed on a map of the structure. “Google, for example, is doing a lot of work on indoor location maps, including airports and retail centers,” Burchett says. “Their work indicates that indoor location is important to a range of vendors.” The system will show the location and identity of each individual firefighter in the structure, and the command center will have the ability to direct those firefighters or simply locate them.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Because the tracking device and the “location station” at the command center will require little to no new technology, this future system should be affordable, easy to incorporate into a department’s existing infrastructure and intuitive to use. It’s still too early to verify whether this will end the search for a reliable indoor tracking system for firefighters, but it just might be the light at the end of the tunnel.
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