Internet of Things

Navigating the world, inside and out

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This post is part of a series recognizing unique IBM Research projects and their unexpected ties to pop culture, with “30” or “1986” being the common thread. The series will run once a week, celebrating the 30th anniversary of IBM Research – Almaden in San Jose, CA.

In 1986, aviation pioneers Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager completed the world’s first non-stop flight around the planet – no refueling – in their aircraft, Voyager. The fiberglass plane took off from Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave, California and flew nearly 30,000 thousand miles, more than doubling the previous record. Thirty years ago, Rutan and Yeager used radar and radio communications to navigate the 9-day journey. Today, we navigate highways and city streets via GPS in a similar way – a satellite picks up a signal from our phone to determine where we are to tell us how to get to where we want to go. IBM researchers in Almaden want to bring those satellites, signals, and routes indoors. And with the Internet of Things, it’s not a far-fetched idea (like a non-stop flight around the Earth once was).

German Flores, IBM Research-Almaden summer intern nad PhD student at UC Santa Cruz

German Flores, IBM Research-Almaden summer intern and PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, tries out IPS in the lab.

What do a new employee, a salesman at a conference, and a college freshman have in common? Unknown surroundings. They often struggle trying to find a lab, cafeteria, or just the restrooms by looking for written signs, or just asking passersby. Wouldn’t it be nice to go from point A to point B in an unfamiliar building, or on a new campus using your smartphone – like you would when driving to a museum, restaurant, or another city? Unfortunately, GPS signals don’t work well indoors due to attenuation from building materials.

IoT for IPS

Thirty years after Voyager’s voyage, the internet of things (IoT) has created a network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings – just about any kind of “thing” imaginable – with embedded electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data. This interconnection means that an IPS, Indoor Positioning System, is now possible for the employee, salesman, student – everyone.

So, the team at IBM’s research lab in Almaden, led by Dr. Divyesh Jadav and Tom Griffin, is building an IPS with beacons. Beacons are Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices that transmit a unique identifier that smartphone sensors can detect. Beacon technology is already in use by retailers to push in-store specific offers, and even by stadiums to help fans find their seats. But how many beacons are needed, where to put them, and how to secure them are the “great indoors” navigation challenges the team is trying to solve.

A beacon used at IBM Research-Almaden

A beacon used at IBM Research-Almaden

A toolkit for DIY IPS

To answer these indoor issues, the team built a beacon deployment and sensing toolkit, and have recorded a number of use case demonstrations that employ the toolkit. For example, they developed a location-aware smartphone app to aid new employees or visitors at the Almaden campus. The app can be used much in the same way you might a GPS map: monitor location, search for specific rooms, get directions. This app is also crowd-sourced. Users can report everything from routing mistakes to instances of facility maintenance.

“Our interns are currently piloting the smartphone app, gathering feedback to fine tune functionality,” Jadav said. “Early results indicate that optimizations to aid beacon placement and automatically fingerprint signal strength are important, and that users love the location awareness and crowd-sourced tip features.”

The team sees an even bigger picture for IPS, when it can be seamlessly combined with GPS and other positioning technologies. This integration can be the basis for a toolkit for end-to-end multi-modal transport navigation and tracking. Such an app could help provide navigation assistance for the visually impaired, elders and minors, and also help their care givers track them in an end-to-end manner. The IPS would also be a key component of a “smart” building, for providing location-aware monitoring of facilities, mobile resources, and space utilization; building a smart lobby and elevator; for reporting near-miss incidents and health hazards; and for performing spot employee surveys using mobile devices.

For now, the team continues to work on the in-lab smartphone app, with plans to roll it out to the rest of company as part of IBM’s onboarding process.

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