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Taking a New Perspective, Researchers Develop New Locating Tech
Carole Teolis and Ben Funk of TRX Systems, Inc., review development of NEON — a unique indoor navigation technology.
Credit: TRX Systems, Inc.

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

How many people can say they built a transistor radio by the age of 12? Carole Teolis and her dad not only built a radio but a television too.

Encouraged by her father, a NASA physicist, Teolis often spent time outside of school learning as much as she could about science and math. Those early exposures to electronics led Teolis to a career in electrical engineering and a passion for building things and solving programs.

While at the University of Maryland, Teolis became interested in signal processing and systems engineering. This led to a job working as a vice president of systems engineering for a security technology company Techno-Sciences. After the events of September 11th and other widely publicized tragedies, Techno-Sciences began investigating the possibility of building a system to track and safeguard firefighters inside burning buildings.

Excited by the potential of this work and the broader lifesaving implications of this technology, Teolis and her colleagues applied for National Science Foundation Small Business Innovative Research support. They won the award in January 2007 and Teolis joined the newly formed company, TRX Systems.

Today, TRX Systems, Inc. is an award winning developer of NEON — a unique indoor navigation technology that has solved the difficult problem of locating, mapping and tracking people when they are inside buildings where GPS is not available, and in outdoor urban areas where GPS is often unreliable.

Arriving at this point required focused effort and significant support from interested customers. The requirements for precisely tracking people in buildings, ships or caves without pre-installed infrastructure are strict and demanding.

Here’s how existing technologies fall short. GPS is best suited to tracking and navigating outdoors when there is a clear view of the sky and a person’s location information may not need to be completely accurate. When you get close to buildings or other obstacles, GPS signals can be blocked or become inaccurate. Wi-Fi location technology relies on extensive RF mapping (often called "fingerprinting"); without that mapping, Wi-Fi devices can only provide information on your general location. Ultra-wideband and other RF tagging methods are valuable for tracking a person inside a building, but most require the installation of expensive technology that is connected throughout the building.

Teolis and her team knew that if they were to solve this problem they needed to conduct their own research and find a different approach. The result was an indoor location system that uses a unique set of sensors and decision-making algorithms to create site maps, building features and other landmarks generated dynamically as people move around a building.

Combining the sensor information from inertial, RF, magnetic and mapping technologies, NEON delivers the precise location and status (standing, walking, no movement) of people in real time.

NEON uses sensors and algorithms to generate site maps, building features and other landmarks as people move around indoors
NEON uses sensors and algorithms to generate site maps, building features and other landmarks as people move around indoors
Credit: TRX Systems, Inc.

To make sure the technology works in real life situations, TRX is partnering with firefighters and military personnel to understand their operations and how personnel might use the technology help keep them safe whether they are indoors, underground or in urban centers.

The TRX Systems currently has development projects underway with DARPA, the U.S. Army and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. In June, NEON was demonstrated at the 2012 Joint Navigation Conference.

“It has taken a lot of hard work but the result is that we have developed a significant new approach for accurately locating people in difficult environments,” said Teolis.

NEON provides better awareness of a situation by providing the exact location of people as they map their route through a structure. This information can be critical for people working in dangerous situations, including firefighters in burning buildings, soldiers in war zones, policemen and SWAT teams during tactical operations or security personnel navigating inside a building or in an unfamiliar underground location.

The technology and system is also useful in urban training environments where precise and real-time after-action reviews are necessary to improving training effectiveness.

Although the TRX team has focused on indoor location for military, security and first responders, today the team is also applying the NEON technology to the problem of indoor location for everyday use. “While TRX Systems started with a focus on firefighters, it has become clear that there are a many situations that would benefit from precise indoor location without relying on pre-installed infrastructure for support,” said Teolis.

In places like malls and office buildings, this technology would allow a person to navigate to the exact restaurant where a friend is waiting, to a store with a favorite item is on sale or to an office cubicle to meet a colleague.

“Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacon technologies work well when precisely mapped, however, additional technology is required to deliver continuous location indoors, in parking garages and office buildings regardless of whether reliably mapped infrastructure is available” said Teolis.

“A college advisor once told me to love what I do and believe I will succeed. That is the philosophy I bring to work,” concluded Teolis .

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in Behind the Scenes articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.