Tackling the Technical Challenge of Getting Lost and Found Indoors

January 2017
Topics: Communications Technology (General), Information Systems, Sensing and Signal Processing (General)
GPS is part of our everyday lives—for outdoor use. But what if you need to locate someone indoors after a fire or search for a young child who wandered off in the mall? MITRE is working to accelerate the science of indoor positioning for the public good.
Walter Barrett holding a laptop.

Inside a massive, 100,000-square foot Orlando, Florida, convention center filled with nearly 300 exhibits and 35,000 visitors, it's possible to get lost—and found—even without common GPS and outdoor navigation.

Over three days this past spring, during one of the nation's largest gatherings of geospatial experts, a MITRE team ventured into the geospatial promised land: indoor positioning. Location-based devices that rely largely on GPS to help people find their way are transforming our world. But they're limited to outdoor use.

Using the vast exhibit floor of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation GEOINT 2016 Symposium as their laboratory, MITRE researchers proved they could also use the emerging new capability to "position people indoors," says Walter Barrett, MITRE's National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) portfolio manager for Sensing and Analytics. He led the team's effort.

Can You See Me Now?

The run-up to that big challenge started small, on MITRE's McLean, Virginia, campus. Using Wi-Fi and a handful of low-energy beacons sized slightly larger than a quarter, the team tracked each other along office corridors and in a parking lot.

When it came to replicating those successes in the cavernous convention hall, the team wasn't assured of success. "We had no idea if our experiment would work or if we would actually be able to position people," Barrett says. "But it worked."

This is what it took: conference participants with Android smartphones, a MITRE-created app, about 80 Bluetooth beacons (made by Radius Networks) mounted high up on columns around the exhibit hall, and Wi-Fi.

A handful of intrepid conference-goers volunteered to be tracked. The MITRE team—which included Tyler Laws, Will Raetz, and Brittany Williams—challenged them to find and swipe QR codes with embedded barcodes placed around the room to reveal their location. Laws developed the Android app that allowed volunteers to chart and see their movement along the convention floor.

Their locations appeared as dots on the map within the smartphone app. Behind the scenes, "we were uploading and collecting all of that information," says Laws, whose work with low-energy beacons began in 2015 when he was a MITRE intern. "It was pretty neat to watch."

Unique Indoor Positioning Data Supports Research

The team soon realized technical expertise was no substitute for good old-fashioned marketing and promotion when it came to enlisting conference recruits and announcing MITRE's experiment. The result was that the number of volunteers they wanted to track fell short.

"We learned an important lesson," Barrett says. "At an intelligence conference, people aren't that willing to collect data for you on their phones or have their movements tracked."

Undeterred, the MITRE team saw the indoor positioning experiment as an unprecedented opportunity. Barrett says they collected unique signal data that no one else has ever seen.

That data set has since been shared across MITRE and with some in the geospatial community. The MITRE experiment has generated buzz in the industry, especially among those interested in the potential for its commercial applications. For now, however, MITRE's indoor positioning and activity analysis continues as internal research.

The MITRE team is also tracking technology trends to see how they can support MITRE's mission in the future.

How Indoor Positioning Affects You

Why should you care about this work? For one thing, it's already part of your life.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are applying indoor positioning technology for commercial interests and advertising. Some of your favorite clothing shops and big box stores are virtually on your trail. The minute you cross the threshold into their space, data collection begins. It ends when you make your purchase. Ultimately, boosting sales and ensuring that you return sit at the top of their goals.

So what do these commercial developments have to do with MITRE's mission? Barrett says: Everything.

By staying aware of how retailers and others use technology like Wi-Fi and beacons, MITRE can explore these innovations to do what we do best—help our sponsors meet the major challenges that face the government and the public. It's a natural offshoot of other MITRE work for NGA involving outdoor geolocation.

Imagine healthcare providers turning to indoor positioning technology to help safeguard elderly patients or those with Alzheimer's. First responders could also benefit by having a high-tech tool to track and rescue those in crisis.

"It's work that may represent a big leap for MITRE. It also sits in a 'sweet spot' for us, as the operator of FFRDCs," Barrett says. "As industry pushes the technology for commercial interests forward, MITRE is in a good position to take advantage of those gains for public safety and emergency response."

—by B. Denise Hawkins


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