CSIRO develops technology that goes where GPS can't

Wireless localisation system can track, sense and communicate in areas GPS and other wireless technologies cannot.

The CSIRO has developed a new wireless localisation system with the ability to track, sense and communicate in areas where GPS and other wireless technologies cannot work.

Originally developed for use in horse and motor racing, the high-accuracy terrestrial localisation system will benefit from an $1 million collaboration fund to commercialise the technology for use by Australia's emergency services.

The technology would allow first response emergency workers to be tracked in dangerous environments such as in building collapses or underground mines where other tracking technologies will not work.

The technology has already been commercialised by CSIRO for use in horse and motor car racing with Sydney company Trantek Systems.

Principal research scientist at CSIRO's ICT Centre, Dr Mark Hedley, said the system is based on radio frequency tracking technologies and uses a series of nodes placed in an environment in addition to nodes attached to, for example, emergency workers.

"We measure the distance between the nodes that are fixed, which we know where they are, and the node that is attached to the emergency worker.

"Based on the measurement of the radio signals between the tags and the command and control centers [nodes] we can work out where those emergency workers are and we can also get back other useful information. If other sensors are attached to those nodes we can get information that might pertain to the health of the worker [heart rate, core temperature] or the environment they are in, such as dangerous gas or radiation levels," he said.

Hedley said the system has a degree of similarity to GPS, being based on the measurement of radio signals to determine how far away things are and therefore their location, but with some important differences:

GPS systems only work outdoors or where an adequate signal can be received, meaning canyons, cliffs, built-up urban areas and underground environments hamper its effectiveness. Hedley said GPS also relies on infrastructure from the US Department of Defence, so if you are operating in an area where you can't receive its signals you would have to install your own infrastructure.

"The final important difference is GPS is basically about navigation, you hold the GPS receiver and work out where you are in the world. [But] we are often interested in tracking where something is - a bit of machinery, an emergency worker underground or something else - so that requires something more than what GPS alone can do," he said.

Other applications of the technology could include use in counter-terrorism and military scenarios, in sport and mining, or in entertainment where, for example, a spotlight could track a performer on stage without the need for a lighting operator.

"We're also working with the Australian Institute of Sport to look at monitoring and tracking athletes...Another area that is quite important for us is the underground area where of course most other systems like GPS don't work at all, particularly in the mining industry where there is quite a large need for safety and automation," Hedley said.

"There's quite a lot of applications for this technology."

The research is being undertaken by CSIRO's ICT Centre's Wireless Technologies Laboratory, in collaboration with Emergency Management Australia, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety, and the National Security Science and Technology branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

CSIRO is hoping the technology will be commercialised and ready for use in emergency management in around three years.

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Andrew Hendry

Computerworld

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