NASA's POINTER Locates Firefighters to Within a Few Inches — Even Through Smoke and Walls

Driven by magnetoquasistatic (MQS) electromagnetic fields, the POINTER works through walls and offers position and orientation tracking.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has partnered with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) to develop a mechanism for tracking firefighters as they move through a burning building: the Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation Tracking for Emergency Responders, or POINTER, system.

"Even with all of the advances made in firefighting technology, we still lose far too many firefighters each year," says Greg Price, leader of S&T's research and development programs for first responders. "We want them to know that we have their backs, that we are working to give them the tools they need to ensure their own safety. POINTER is one of those life-saving solutions."

The MQS-based POINTER system could help keep first responders like firefighters safe. (📹: DHS S&T)

While outdoor positioning is more-or-less a solved problem thanks to global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technologies like GPS, indoor positioning is considerably tricker thanks to the way radio waves are blocked or bounced by building materials. POINTER, then, has been developed without recourse to radio waves: POINTER uses magnetoquasistatic (MQS) electromagnetic fields, generated by a transmitter attached to a fire truck and received by cellphone-sized units worn by each firefighter.

"These fields are not blocked or reflected by the materials found in most buildings," JPL's Darmindra Arumugam, who developed the framework behind the technology and serves as its princiapl investigator, "as most construction materials allow quasistatic magnetic fields to easily permeate. Whereas radio waves become blocked, reflected, and attenuated by the metal, cement, and brick materials in buildings, magnetoquasistatic fields do not. They pass straight through walls, creating a means to navigate and communicate when direct line of sight is not available."

JPL's interest in the technology extends, naturally, beyond the confines of our planet: NASA is investigating the MQS system for communication by planet-hopping robots which may need to communicate and navigate through ice, caves, and under water.

In its present incarnation, POINTER is good to a range of around 230 feet and offers 3D positioning and orientation detection with live visualisation to an accuracy of a few inches — even through walls. "This is a very exciting technology that adds another dimension to firefighters' situational awareness," claims JPL's POINTER program manager Ed Chow. "Firefighters can be tracked in real time and, if they become unresponsive, their team members can see if they are trapped under debris or if they are injured so a rescue can be mounted."

More information on POINTER can be found on the DHS website, with JPL hoping to offer a commercial version of the technology some time in 2022.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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