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Navigation Technology Tracks People Indoors

The Sentrix System atop a firefighter’s gear.
(Image: © TRX Systems)

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

Firefighters, dismounted soldiers, miners, and security personnel are often in areas where GPS coverage is not available, or plagued by errors. Currently available indoor tracking technologies depend on installed infrastructure that cannot be made available in a burning building, in urban battlefield environments, or in caves. TRX Systems, with support from NSF, has developed technology to deliver precise, infrastructure-free tracking of personnel in these harsh environments. To do this, TRX has developed a set of motion classification algorithms that continuously monitor and analyze the movement of personnel to characterize motions that are unique to people. A set of algorithms then intelligently fuses this motion information with available and inferred map information and a broad range of sensor data including compass, GPS, ranging, and inertial sensor data. By isolating sparse areas in which estimates from a degraded sensor (such as a compass or GPS) are accurate and eliminating the rest, it is possible to precisely locate personnel even in environments with plagued sensor-data errors. Carole Teolis, TRX’s Chief Technology Officer and an early member of the TRX Systems research and development team, answers ScienceLives’ questions below.

Name: Carole Teolis Age: 45 Institution: TRX Systems Field of Study: Electrical Engineering

What inspired you to choose this field of study? In high school, I loved physics and math and was beginning to learn about computers. My dad and I used to build electronics for fun – oscilloscopes, even TVs. Electrical engineering combined all of the things I liked and more.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? When I was in graduate school my advisor thought I was putting in the minimum effort to do well but that I had the potential to do better. He told me that he thought I could do okay skating by on my intellect or I could spend some time finding what I loved to do and believed in - and then put my whole heart and mind into it. I came away from that conversation focused on the fact that this is was what it would take to do something that really made a difference…and that I would be happier too. (He did add that I would be crushed by people who weren’t as smart but were more passionate about what they were doing if I didn’t get my butt in gear!). I still live by that philosophy - you have to love what you are doing and believe you will succeed.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I was more of an engineer than a scientist as a kid. My first engineering project was to build a Radio Shack transistor radio with my dad…I must have been about 6 or 7.

The first experiment I did that actually followed scientific process was for the high school science fair. I was fascinated with solar houses and I did an experiment with cardboard models to show that very simple changes that blocked direct sunlight in the summer and allowed sunlight in during the winter would make a huge difference in heating and cooling.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? I enjoy learning new things, solving problems, and working with others who enjoy the same things. As a researcher I am always learning something new and I work on things that I enjoy thinking about. This was enough early on, but after some time I realized that this alone was not enough. Now I like to know that the research will be applied in ways that make a difference. This is why we started TRX, to commercialize our research in tracking systems.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? Always be skeptical of your own results and open to critical evaluations of your work. Be resilient to the criticism because sometimes it is the harshest criticisms that can make us open our eyes and learn something new, something important.

What are the societal benefits of your research? The tracking technology we are developing will let commanders remotely monitor where their people are when they are in GPS-denied environments. This information could be used to save the lives of firefighters, police officers, soldiers, miners or other personnel in occupations where they put their lives in danger on a daily basis. Eventually, we see location-enabled applications functioning everywhere regardless of GPS availability – in part enabled by TRX technology.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? That would have to be my husband Tony, who is also an electrical engineer. He is always around to talk things through when I need him. We met in graduate school – we were homework buddies.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? I think most people think of research as hours and hours of grueling work in the lab but research is actually very rewarding and a lot of fun – especially when you see your research deployed in commercial products and impacting people’s lives.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? The only thing irreplaceable in our lab is the team. Assuming they are all safe, if I could grab one inanimate object, it would be my laptop. Even though it is backed up, I feel like I have my whole life on there.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I don’t actually tend to listen to a lot of music. Our office is an open environment, conducive to discussion and collaboration and I live very close to the office, so my commute is very short. After a busy and focused day at the office I actually look forward to a quiet trip in the car on my short ride home.

Editor’s Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), 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 ScienceLives archive.