Pointing to a Safer Future for First Responders

NASA researchers are closing in on technology that will pinpoint locations of first responders in structures.

by Jim McKay / January 20, 2017
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A team of researchers may be homing in on one of the problems that continues to follow first responders — especially firefighters — when they enter larger structures to fight fires or search for victims.

The inability to locate first responders in large structures is a deadly problem that continues to plague public safety, but a viable solution could be in the offing.

The researchers, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., are testing electromagnetic fields — quasistatic — instead of radio waves as a method for locating not only where first responders are in a building but what position they are in.

The researchers have come up with a system, Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER), that has the potential to save first responders’ lives.

The lead researcher on the project, Darmindra Arumugam, said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate personnel approached the lab about the research it was doing in hopes of finding a solution to the decades-old problem. DHS is funding the development.

“We were approached by DHS to look at the kinds of problems they have, which is the ability to track first responders; it’s still the No. 1 problem they face,” Arumugam said. “They’ve been conveying that to us over the last few years.”

Research in this area has always focused on radio waves, not fields. Electromagnetic waves are valuable for communication purposes because they carry energy for long distances, and they do this because they couple electric and magnetic waves together.

But problems arise when these waves meet a structure, like a thick wall or underground, and tend to bounce off these structures. The bouncing is like an echo and makes it difficult to know where the subject is.

Quasistatic fields are a good replacement for the waves. Electromagnetic energy is created when the electric and magnetic waves couple. That propagates energy and creates the bouncing effect.

In quasistatic fields there is an interim distance before the electric and magnetic waves couple, and it is within this region that the fields are able to connect with the target. This target, a first responder in this case, will have in possession a small device with a magnetic field that will accept the field and invert it back outside where the transmitter is.

This will show the transmitter exactly where the first responder is and what position his or her body is in.

The technology works, but the devices used to transmit and accept the field are still too large to be practical, at about 4 inches by 4 by 9 inches.

“To this day, the ability to track and locate first responders is a No. 1 priority for disaster agencies across the country,” said Greg Price, DHS First Responder Technologies Division director in a press release. It’s truly a Holy Grail capacity that doesn’t exist today. If the POINTER project continues along its current path, first responders will be safer in the future.”

Arumugam said the researchers have demonstrated POINTER several times for DHS, including once in Washington, D.C., for Deputy Under Secretary for Science the Technology Robert Griffin in a very challenging two-story building. “The results were very good and the secretary was thrilled with the technology,” he said.

“The big picture is to complete the tech-related work in the next year or two and miniaturize the devices that can be used for field testing.”