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Safety in Your Pocket: Location-Based Mobile Alerts
Imagine a mobile phone that can warn you about nearby tornados, hurricanes, chemical spills, or even terrorist threats, all without the need for anyone else to know your location. That phone on your belt or in your purse may soon provide such geographic-specific alerts, as well as location-based services like customized traffic information, thanks to a technology pioneered by MITRE.
This MITRE-patented technology allows mobile phones and other handheld devices to monitor their own location and determine whether generally broadcast alerts are relevant to them. Because the wireless phone filters messages, individual privacy is protected. Alerting authorities do not need to track where wireless users are, and individuals only see messages relevant to their location.
The capability began as the idea of an employee with a commitment to public safety. To help it make the leap from research to reality, MITRE's Technology Transfer Office (TTO) licensed it for commercial development to SquareLoop, a Reston, Va.-based start-up company.
The Eureka Moment
"It was just a good idea that we had back in 1993," says Darrell Ernst, a MITRE defense space systems engineer. The idea came to Ernst after hearing his son Craig, then an Army helicopter pilot in Operation Desert Storm, describe how warning sirens went off many minutes after he saw Scud missiles travel through the night sky above him.
"It was taking up to 45 minutes to get warning information to the troops in the desert, and the flight time of a Scud is about 7 minutes," explains Ernst. "All of the sudden I had this flash of insight. It was one of those things you get once in your lifetime."
Ernst's epiphany was to use space on the GPS satellite data link to broadcast information on detected missile launches to specially programmed handheld devices carried by the troops. If a device determined that its location fell within the warning area for an alert, it would notify its user, giving U.S. troops almost instant access to critical battlefield information.
Ahead of Its Time
Ernst formed a small group at MITRE's Colorado Springs site to work on the idea, which the company patented. Because the project had no sponsor, the group worked on it at lunch and on the weekends. By 1995, MITRE decided to showcase the concept at the Joint Warrior Interoperability Demonstration (JWID), a Joint Staff-sponsored event to assess emerging technologies and interoperability solutions. The only problem: there was nothing tangible to show.
"Up to that time, we had no money. So we had two weeks to come up with a software design, a hardware design, and put it together," explains Ernst. "But it worked."
The result was a hand-held device known as the tactical automated situation receiver (TASR). After JWID, the U.S. Air Force Electronic Systems Center began exploring TASR for various uses, including immediately broadcasting the locations of newly discovered minefields.
Meanwhile, Ernst started thinking about the technology's possible civil emergency management applications. While attending a conference on bioterrorism after the anthrax contamination at Washington, D.C.'s Brentwood post office in 2001, Ernst and Jim Marshall, a MITRE network systems and distributed systems engineer, came up with another idea. Their new proposal extended the original capability to alert people to risks based on where they'd been in the past. That idea formed the basis for a second patent.
"If devices keep track of where they've been, they can compare that with the time and region of interest for any messages that go out," explains Marshall. "If you had been near the Brentwood post office around the time when anthrax was found, for instance, you'd have been alerted to go get decontaminated."
As the idea evolved, the technology took on the name "Geocast." MITRE's TTO began showcasing it at conferences in hopes of finding ways to implement it as a public warning system. The Federal Emergency Management Agency invited MITRE to present Geocast at technology development workshops, and the company discussed a civil warning system with the state of Alaska. The Partnership for Public Warning, a public/private partnership to coordinate disaster warning programs that MITRE helped found, also explored using the technology.
However, none of these projects resulted in the pervasive public warning system that Ernst wanted. Before that could happen, consumer technology needed to catch up.
Pieces Fall into Place
For years, Geocast experienced what Gerard Eldering, director of MITRE's TTO, calls "a classic chicken-or-egg problem." Radio broadcasting companies and others that might provide location-based alerts were unwilling to do so until a large portion of the public had devices capable of receiving them. Companies that made receiver devices—at that time the Geocast team was focusing on car radios—resisted adding expensive location hardware to their products until service providers were lined up.
In 2004, Geocast's time finally arrived when Nextel released a mobile phone that had all of the necessary components: wireless receiver capability, software processing, and location capability. MITRE loaded software onto a few of the phones and began demonstrating Geocast to the investment community.
"There's generally a pretty big gap between where MITRE research wraps up and where a commercial company is interested in picking it up," says Eldering. "One model for bridging that gap is the entrepreneur who is willing to take the risk to carry a technology from research to commercial rollout."
MITRE's TTO began working with Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), a state-funded organization that develops technology business, to identify people interested in licensing the technology. Entrepreneur Tom Stroup, the founder of several wireless communications companies, learned about Geocast from the CIT. He was intrigued by the solution it offered to problems posed by location-based services.
Privacy concerns have hindered the large-scale commercial implementation of location-based services, except for those designed specifically for tracking, like services that let employers locate their employees or parents keep an eye on their children's whereabouts. Tracking and storing location data is also expensive for service providers because it uses up network resources and a large amount of server space.
"Geocast turned that whole model upside down by pushing the processing out to the handset. It's a very elegant solution," Stroup says. Stroup was so impressed with the technology that he licensed it from MITRE and founded SquareLoop.
Balancing Safety and Commercial Applications
As the Geocast concept evolved over time, safety alerting remained MITRE's main focus. While recognizing that the earning potential of possible commercial applications would draw entrepreneurs, MITRE wanted to make sure the technology went to a company that would pursue the emergency applications as well.
Commercial uses that SquareLoop is exploring include delivering location-based weather and traffic information, either on a subscription or an advertising-supported basis. Mobile advertising models are also in development; these might include subscription services that alert users to exclusive discounts on products they are interested in when they are near a store location.
"Are there commercial applications for it? Absolutely," says Marshall. "But we really want it to help keep people safe. And that's the primary thrust of what SquareLoop is doing."
In February 2006, the city of Manassas, Va., and SquareLoop demonstrated the technology's homeland security potential by sending geographically targeted test evacuation messages to emergency responders on their wireless phones. The company is also working to set up a trial with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Through a contact provided by MITRE's TTO, SquareLoop is arranging a test with a police department in Poland that it hopes will lead to the technology's use throughout the European Union. Stroup and his team are also exploring using the technology to push out Amber Alerts and pictures of fugitives.
In the end, the technology's safety alerting potential may be what gets it onto every cell phone in the U.S. Stroup notes that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to require that the wireless industry participate in the emergency alert system.
"Our hope," he says, "is that the industry will get behind our solution because it provides a lot of capabilities not otherwise available."
—by Rachael Morgan
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Page last updated: October 24, 2006 | Top of page
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