POINTER is a new tracking system to help locate firefighters inside smoky buildings. The system is made up of a receiver, base station, and transmitter. (Photo from NASA/JPL)


Firefighters put their lives on the line every day. The fire itself is dangerous, but the smoke can also make it challenging to navigate and soon, the firefighter needs rescuing. To address this issue, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology have teamed up to develop POINTER, a new system to locate and track firefighters inside buildings.


POINTER, short for Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders, doesn’t use radio waves. Though radio waves can easily track your location in an open space, it becomes unpredictable once indoors. Instead, POINTER uses magnetoquasistatic (MQS) fields. To take advantage of this magnetic field, the team worked out a mathematical and technical framework to lower its frequencies to extend the range of the technology while ensuring highly accurate location data.


MQS is generated when low-frequency alternating electrical currents pass through a coil. Electromagnetic fields contain electric and magnetic components but at very low frequencies. For coil structures, the magnetic component in MQS fields becomes dominant. Because their range can extend from a few meters to thousands of meters, MQS fields act much like the static magnetic fields produced by Earth’s core.


So how does POINTER work exactly? The system is composed of a receiver, transmitter, and base station. The firefighter wears the receiver, which is about the size of a cellphone, that communicates with a transmitter that can be attached to emergency vehicles. The transmitter will then generate the MQS fields, which will travel through the building and ping any receivers inside over a range of about 230 feet.


From there, the receivers detect the fields, determine their 3D location, and send back the data outside the building to the base station. The system uses visualization software to show where the firefighters are in the 3D space. POINTER not only locates firefighters through walls, but MQS fields can also calculate the orientation of the receiver, which can provide critical information like whether the firefighter is standing up or lying down.


The POINTER team is carrying out field tests in various firefighter scenarios. A commercial version of the system will be made available to fire departments in 2022. While this groundbreaking technology is sure to save the lives of first responders, NASA should be wary of making the system widely available. Having technology that sees through walls is dubious and can be misused if it falls into the wrong hands.


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