Skip to main content

MIT researchers build wearable, real-time mapping system

Search-and-rescue operations may one day get a boost from a wearable sensor system in development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

MIT researchers built a system that digitally maps the environment where the wearer is moving. Ideally, the gadget will become a tool that emergency personnel could use to coordinate disaster response.

According to MIT News, the machine's sensors wirelessly relay data to an off-site computer, allowing observers to watch the map's creation as the wearer moves through a space – in this instance, an MIT building hallway. The prototype was built using a stripped-down Microsoft Kinect sensor and a laser rangefinder.

MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory research scientist Maurice Fallon leads the project, which he envisions for use in a hazmat situation, "where people are suited up with the full suit, and they go in and explore an environment," he told MIT News.

"The current approach would be to textually summarize what they had seen afterward – 'I went into this room on the left, I saw this, I went into the next room,' and so on," Fallon said. "We want to try to automate that."

Fallon's research is supplemented by professors John Leonard and Seth Teller, of the department of Mechanical Engineering and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), respectively, as well as EECS graduate students Hordur Johannsson and Jonathan Brookshire.

The system was originally developed for robots but had been adapted for human use. It includes a laser rangefinder, which sweeps a beam in a 270-degree arc, measuring the time it takes for light pulses to return.

While attached to a human, though, the machine is jostled and may not provide as accurate a map as a roving robot could – especially if affixed to an emergency responder who is presumably moving swiftly through a location, and various floors of a building.

As a result, a button attached to the sensors allows the user to annotate the map. In the prototype, it simply serves as a way to mark a point of interest. The developers envision a future system that will add voice or text tags to the map, for emergency responders to mark structural damage or a toxic spill.

"This idea of having a SLAM [simultaneous localisation and mapping] system that is attached to a human's body, for figuring out where it is, is actually innovative and pretty useful," Wolfram Burgard, a computer science professor at the University of Freiburg in Germany, told MIT News. "For first responders, a technology like this one might be highly relevant."