I was meeting with the CEO of a major hospital in New York City and discussing a different kind of transportation problem from what I normally deal with. His hospital campus was an amalgam of buildings built over a century and linked by corridors, pedestrian bridges, underground passageways and street-level links. Patients, depending on need, would be transported to operating rooms, radiology units, ICUs and their own rooms. That day we were talking about visitors to patients. How can patients’ families find them in this labyrinth? What if the patient’s ID bracelet was a GPS device, too? That got me thinking about the concept of person-to-person transport.
In the domain of personal navigation, directions from Point A to B have always been divided by mode of transportation. A street map would only help you drive from one street address to another. A bus map only shows you the bus routes closest to your origin and destination. And while there have been some advances by online trip planners in combining both vehicular and walking aspects to provide a more unified set of directions, they are still restricted to the outdoor street network.
But what if you wanted to find a specific room in a large hospital, the correct platform at a train depot, or a particular store in a shopping mall? Existing navigational technology would be of no help. You would have to hope to find a map of the building or someone to point you in the right direction.
The next logical step in the evolution of personal navigation is the ability to obtain an inclusive set of directions that would take you from where you are standing at any moment to the exact location of your destination, all in real-time on your mobile device. It is a concept I like to call ‘complete transportation’. Imagine having navigational directions that not only show you what trains to take and streets to walk down, but also which hallways to turn into, stairways to go up, and doors to knock on.
Two key obstacles need to be addressed before our mobile devices can support complete transportation. The first is accurately finding the position of an individual. At best, today’s consumer-grade cell phone GPS technology can pinpoint a device to within 20-30ft of the actual location. Although this may be sufficient for vehicles on a street network, it is far too inaccurate for pedestrian-level navigation. By 2014, however, a new generation of GPS satellites, known as Block III, will come online as part of a US$5.5 billion upgrade by Lockheed Martin. These will increase the accuracy of GPS devices by several times, allowing them to track positions to within 3ft.
The second issue is the ability to provide accurate indoor directions. Even with the impending upgrade to the GPS satellite system, GPS technology is insufficient for precise indoor tracking, especially along the vertical axis. So instead, researchers at MIT are investigating the viability of a concept known as magnetic positioning.
All buildings have a unique magnetic thumbprint created by their steel infrastructure. By using a magnetic sensor array, a person’s location can be pinpointed within the building’s magnetic field. Once a building has been ‘magnetically mapped’, navigational directions anywhere within the building can be generated. This technology combined with superior GPS tracking can make complete transportation possible.
There is still a bit of work needed, however, before complete transportation can truly be realized. Magnetic positioning needs to be refined and integrated into mobile devices. Also, cell phone applications need to be developed that can use both GPS satellites and magnetic positioning to generate directions. But as cities expand and buildings are built bigger, the need and demand for more precise directions will grow as well. Complete transportation can fill in the void in existing navigation tools by providing directions not only for the outside street network but indoors as well. Soon, being lost may really become a thing of the past.
Republished from the April/May 2012 edition of Traffic Technology International magazine
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