While technology has given firefighters such advances as thermal imaging masks and high-tech heat resistant fabrics, it has yet to come up with a satisfactory solution to an urgent problem: How to track and locate first responders in a complicated structure. That said, could an electromagnetic tracker developed by NASA help them rescue lives without risking theirs?

Called POINTER (Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders), the device is a departure in that it makes use of quasi-static electromagnetic fields, while most research in the field has focussed on radio waves. While their short ranges might be seen as a limiting factor, quasi-static fields have a few advantages of their own that make them better suited for use in a complex structure or underground. Not only can they be adjusted to different sizes and wavelengths, they don't bounce off walls or lose functionality underground either, unlike radio waves. This allows them to be deployed in all kinds of environments, from open spaces to skyscrapers and underground bunkers.

Secondly, the slow speed at which these fields change makes it possible to use them to detect the different orientations of devices accurately. Where use in a burning building is concerned, a tracking device emitting a quasi-static field offers a vital edge over GPS or cellular devices by letting receivers know not only their exact location but also their orientation. For example, a team commander could follow a firefighter's movements and tell whether an individual was crawling on the ground or lying face down, which could in turn suggest that they might have passed out.

At present, the POINTER prototype looks a bit like a ghostbuster's proton pack but researchers are hoping to shrink it further so that it can be easily attached to a PPE (Credit: Paul Wedig/DHS-Science and Technology Directorate)

The algorithm used in POINTER is as much a mathematical as it is a technological breakthrough.

Darmindra Arumugam, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Group (JPL), was instrumental in developing the theory, technique and algorithms that can analyze both the electrical and the magnetic components of quasi-static fields. Without these algorithms, interpreting the quasi-static fields and their signaling would be a challenge.

Following a successful demonstration at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, Arumugam and his team are now working on developing the technology further so that POINTER, which is now the size of a shoebox, can be small enough to fit on a button, pocket or belt buckle of a first responder's Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The goal is to enable firefighters to put on their PPE without worrying about anything else, says Greg Price, DHS First Responder Technologies Division director.

"To this day, the ability to track and locate first responders is a number-one priority for disaster agencies across the country," says Price. "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."

On another note, a smaller-sized POINTER would also allow it to be paired with another JPL innovation: AUDREY, an AI designed to help firefighters navigate smoke-filled buildings. The former's ability to pinpoint locations and orientation would help the system generate relevant real-time data. "[Without] knowing each member's exact position and orientation, you can't make those kinds of suggestions," says POINTER program manager Ed Chow.

That being said, while the tracking device was developed to help first responders, its potential spans industrial, military and space applications.

"POINTER could be used in space robotics," says Arumugam. "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."

The team at JPL explains the technology behind POINTER in the video below:

Source: JPL NASA

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