Personal Tracking System Touted as Lifesaver for First Responders

By Stew Magnuson
The ability to track firefighters inside buildings where GPS signals are weak or nonexistent has been a long-time goal of the Department of Homeland Security.

The tragic loss of 343 first responders in the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 has prompted the department’s science and technology directorate to look for tracking devices that can tell an incident commander exactly where firefighters are, which direction they are heading, and alert them if those inside are in danger.

A University of Michigan professor of robotics Johann Borenstein is touting a personal locator system that is embedded in the heel of a first responder’s boot.

“The big concern for firefighters is that they can become incapacitated due to injury or smoke inhalation or running out of air. They want to be found real quick by their colleagues and rescued,” he said.

An inertia measurement unit in the boot transmits through radio relays the location and trajectory of a firefighter. The software, which a commander can monitor outside a building on a laptop, can track multiple firefighters.

It’s important that the tracker identifies odd motions, such as one firefighter picking up and dragging a fallen comrade. It can read falling, dragging, crawling and other movements. “Our system tracks these different modes of motion very accurately,” he said.

The technology can also be used to track soldiers or robots that are sent into GPS-deprived situations such as buildings or tunnels, Borenstein said.

The program received money from the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology at San Diego State University, which is funded by DHS, the Office of Naval Research and the office of the secretary of defense. CCAT recently tested the system in San Diego, but Borenstein’s program has come to a standstill. He’s looking for a company that will license and commercialize the technology and take it though the so-called “Valley of Death” where good ideas die without ever reaching a market.

There are many companies and organizations working on this problem, Borenstein acknowledged. “Our system is ready to go,” he said. “The funding seems to be thrown in buckets in the millions at large defense contractors,” he said.

Topics: Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

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