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PSCR Awards $8M for First Responder 3D Indoor Tracking Prize

An image of radio frequency indoor localization and mapping hardware with a generator and antenna lines.
Credit: NIST

NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division has awarded $8 million to the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab at Indiana University’s (IU) Pervasive Technology Institute to implement a prize competition aimed at developing indoor localization technologies that support first responders in a variety of mission types. The multi-phase challenge serves to build a community of experts in localization and public safety who can examine the potential myriad of solutions to this pressing issue. IU expects to officially launch the open competition in fall 2021.

The award, known as the Public Safety Innovation Accelerator Program (PSIAP) First Responder 3D Indoor Tracking (FR3D) Prize, is the first time that NIST has awarded a cooperative agreement that will be implemented as a prize competition.

Keeping First Responders Safe Indoors

The goal of the FR3D Prize is to demonstrate indoor localization and tracking of first responders within one-meter accuracy in a variety of buildings without any pre-deployed infrastructure, like Wi-Fi access points or Bluetooth beacons. However, this technical challenge is difficult to solve.

People can track their location outdoors because of a Global Navigation Satellite System, commonly known as GPS, where satellite signals can be translated into location information. However, this system does not function as well indoors because the signals that are so easily transmitted outside are reduced significantly inside a building where concrete and other materials disrupt the data from being sent and received.

This poses a problem for public safety because every year, firefighters die, are seriously injured, or become lost, separated, or difficult to locate inside buildings. Accurate indoor tracking could radically change this outcome for the better.

Firefighters are not the only first responders that stand to benefit from optimized localization technologies such as inertial-based systems and map-matching techniques. Having accurate indoor position information for law enforcement personnel could improve the effectiveness of response during emergencies and Emergency Medical Services could see improved response times. These technologies could also be helpful to incident commanders during large, complex, multi-agency responses.

The FR3D Prize builds on past efforts from PSCR focused on indoor localization, and continues critical work aimed at helping first responders get the advanced communications capabilities they need. The inability to track first responders indoors without pre-existing infrastructure was one of the key technology gaps identified in PSCR roadmapping workshops—which brought together a nexus of government, public safety, and industry stakeholders. The success of past PSCR location-based services programs and the evolution of component technologies demonstrates that the fields of positioning, mapping, and localization are now mature enough for a grand challenge to advance fully integrated solutions for this urgent problem.

Designed for Inventive Solutions

Researchers agree that there will not be one panacea to the indoor localization problem. According to Prize Challenge Specialist and PSCR Program Officer Gary Howarth, “The FR3D challenge confronts a technically demanding and complex problem that can’t be solved with a single solution. We expect to see a host of technologies working together to accomplish real-time indoor tracking.” With room for many different solutions, a competition will help indicate which are the most responsive to public safety needs. That’s why the program design team pioneered the use of a prize competition as the mechanism for engaging innovators in the research.

The prize challenge format also leverages the benefits of public private partnership because it allows NIST to draw talent and expertise external to the federal government and focus on achieving the project’s goal. Furthermore, the award to IU, which was funded as a cooperative agreement, will benefit from collaboration with technical experts within NIST. This mechanism opens communication avenues to enable the strongest elements of the project to move forward from both the implementation perspective as well as the technical perspective.

To learn more about IU and their plans to implement the prize challenge, visit PSCR’s Past Funding Opportunities.

Released April 30, 2021, Updated May 7, 2021