New indoor navigation technologies herald new era of human mobility and consumer insights

Navigation used to be simply about getting from A to B, but the commercialisation of US military global positioning systems made positioning and location data much more than this – it added a level of reliability and accuracy, and made the data available to anyone wishing to use it. Now, position, navigation and timing information from GPS and other satellite systems, underpins many of the services we use every day, from financial transactions to energy supply, as well as the everyday SatNav.

Despite its ubiquity, GPS and other satellite-based systems do not work well indoors, underground and underwater. Because signals from GPS travel huge distances from space, they are very weak once they reach Earth, making them easily blocked by walls, prone to interference, or susceptible to deliberate jamming.  As such, satellite navigation systems are at best unreliable, and at worst unavailable, indoors.
Roger McKinlay, President of the Royal Institute of Navigation, said: “As well as being inconvenient, the lack of reliable indoor navigation is a very real problem for emergency services or the military- imagine a firefighter trying to rescue people from a smoke-filled building. As well as solving problems like these, accurate indoor positioning could ease the flow of people around hospitals and airports, helping doctors locate patients with ease, or seamlessly guiding an airline passenger from check-in to the gate. Accurate indoor positioning systems could also help retailers monitor consumer behaviour better and improve user experience with interactive services that respond to your location.’

The technologies unveiled at the International Navigation Conference today, will help bring accurate indoor positioning and navigation one step closer to reality. They include:

  • A new MEMS ‘step detection’ system that will help firemen navigate in an emergency, and can also be used to monitor movement of elderly people, and to alert someone if they fall (Beihang University, China)
  • A project to make indoor positioning using WiFi signals more accurate and reliable by improving WiFi ‘fingerprinting’ (University of Nottingham, UK)
  • A system that has achieved a positioning accuracy of around 5cm with a Kinect sensor using a series of new algorithms (National Cheng Kung University, China)
  • A new technology that will allow mobile devices (like smartphones) to globally localise themselves indoors, using a loudspeaker installation typically already used  in public spaces (INESC TEC and FEUP, Portugal)
  • The first indoor audio-visual mapping system, using Microsoft Kinect to enable indoor navigation in low-light (Harbin Engineering University, China)
  • An app that monitors unique human motions, like step length, to improve the accuracy of smartphone based indoor positioning (National Cheng Kung University, China)

Dr Ramsey Faragher, senior research asociate at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, and an expert on infrastructure-free indoor positioning, said: ‘The beauty of GPS and one of the reasons that it has been so successfully commercialised is that the infrastructure exists already, and all is needed is an inexpensive receiver to tap into that infrastructure. It’s also free at the point of use. The challenge for indoor navigation technologies is to develop a highly accurate service that doesn’t require new infrastructure, expert knowledge or large costs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technologies that show the most promise use existing signals such as WiFi and hardware like mobile phones, as the technologies unveiled today do, to deduce relative position and provide navigation.’

The International Navigation Conference brings together experts and companies from around the world to discuss the greatest challenges and opportunities in positioning, location and navigation. As well as indoor navigation, developments in autonomous vehicles, quantum navigation and solutions to GPS jamming will be presented.

Professor Terry Moore, director of the Nottingham Geospatial Institute, said: ‘Almost every inch of our outdoor space is mapped out, yet our indoor spaces remain fairly unchartered territory. The lack of reliable GPS indoors makes it difficult to achieve accurate position, location and timing. However, as people increasingly expect information and services on demand, wherever they are, the demand for indoor navigation is booming. A whole host of new navigation technologies are being developed to help people find their way around big buildings like hospitals, shopping malls and universities, whilst developments in indoor positioning promise to aid emergency responders, and retailers looking to tailor advertising and entice people into their stores. Within the next five to ten years, our indoor spaces are set to become much more intelligent, shedding light on our behaviour and responding to us in a way that will make our lives easier.’

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