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Forget GPS, Here Comes IPS
August 1, 2013   
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Łukasz Kulas, Ph.D., from the Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunications and Informatics at the Gdańsk University of Technology in northern Poland, talks to Karolina Olszewska.

You manage a project that aims to develop an innovative positioning system for use inside buildings. Your system is called a “hybrid indoor positioning system” and is being co-financed by Poland’s National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) as part of its Lider (Leader) program, which is designed to promote the professional development of young researchers across the country. What’s the “hybrid indoor positioning system” all about?

It’s actually a range of indoor positioning systems (IPS). They are similar to the Global Positioning System, it’s just that the GPS is for positioning people, vehicles and objects outdoors. I’m working on an indoor positioning system. Such a system makes it possible to track selected objects in a production facility, a high-rise office building or a hospital. My main goal is to create modular hardware and software that will be loaded into these devices as well as advanced control software installed on a server.

Why are such systems needed?

Any company and institution that wants to protect people and property needs them. Many companies and institutions have expensive equipment, such as laptops or even small measuring devices that are sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of zlotys and can easily go missing. If you connect a special system to them and install dedicated wireless infrastructure, the system will always know where specific equipment is located. If I configured the system based on the assumption that the measuring instrument should never leave the lab, then with every attempt to take it out, the alarm will go off and automatically lock the doors in the room. This will also happen if someone tries to wrap the object with aluminum foil and stash it away.

Logistics is another use, in addition to security. In large companies in the retail sales, forwarding or manufacturing business, there are lots of people looking for various things that have been left behind somewhere. I know of a company—which repairs mobile devices such as cell phones—that has special full-time employees responsible for looking for what’s gone missing. So it’s easy to imagine just how huge the costs involved are.

Does this mean that the main purpose of positioning systems is to make people’s work more efficient?

Yes. And not only in industry. They are also very useful in hospitals where trolleys are used for transporting patients as well as portable medical equipment. Medical staff take a patient somewhere for a medical exam, leave the trolley or equipment there and forget about it. And then everyone searches for that nervously. According to studies I’ve read, if a hospital were provided with an indoor positioning system, it could perform several more operations every year, improve the quality of services, and so on.

There is also another important use in hospitals—alarm buttons. A patient could be holding such a button in his hand or around his neck and use it to call for help. Of course, patients already have such buttons by their beds. But they move around the hospital, step out to buy a newspaper, go to medical exams or to the bathroom. And in each of these places they may slip or faint. Providing them with a portable alarm button that sends information and makes it possible to determine their position would enable medical personnel to respond quickly.

Can your system be adapted to the needs of specific customers—hospitals, industry?

I’m developing various types of devices that can be configured in any way, and equipped with any software. And these different units can be linked together to obtain “tailor-made” applications. The system for hospitals will be different from that for monitoring the security of military facilities, for example. In the case of hospitals, a simple system based on the measurement of radio signal parameters—for example, the strength of the signal—will be enough, while in the case of military facilities a hybrid system needs to be used.

Just what does the term “hybrid system” mean?

An object is usually positioned by analyzing a specific parameter. The GPS system has satellites that orbit the earth. In my system, the position of the object to which a special tracking device is connected, can be determined by analyzing the radio wave and its different parameters, such as signal strength. If we selected equipment in different locations inside a building, the signal from the device located at the end of the hallway will be the weakest. In this way, it is possible to determine the position of the object. It is also possible to take into account another characteristic of the radio signal—the direction from which it comes. A special antenna needs to be constructed for that as well.

The location of an object can also be determined by means of a signal from the camera. The camera analyzes the image and identifies the people and objects visible in the scene being observed. Radio and visual information is combined, which improves the system’s accuracy. This is a hybrid system—it allows you to analyze various parameters of different signals, such as radio, visual, infrared, and they are all combined together in a single algorithm.

Just how innovative is your system?

At the moment, all the components are generally used separately. I’m trying to combine them. As part of the project, I’m developing a range of devices and algorithms for different systems, depending on need, with positioning accuracy of several meters or even less than a meter. The requirements with regard to a system used in a hospital will be different from those for a system used in a production facility. The hybrid indoor positioning system project is being carried out as part of my work at the Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunications and Informatics at the University of Gdańsk. It began in January 2010 and ends this December.

How close are you to the implementation stage?

The commercial stage—which means putting the system to commercial use—is very close.

The hybrid indoor positioning system is a R&D project involving the development of technology. At the moment, four people are working on the project on a regular basis. Other professionals are being hired temporarily to handle specific tasks. As a result, funds allocated for the project are being spent in a more efficient manner.

How much has the project cost?

I got around zl.1 million in financing for three years as part of the National Center for Research and Development’s Lider program. I used the money to buy basic research infrastructure, system components, electronics and books. A significant part of the money was spent on pay for highly skilled engineers hired for specific tasks.
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