The emergency worker’s best friend: A backpack that maps

Thu, 09/27/2012 - 9:07am
Kasey Panetta, Associate Editor

Emergency workers risk their lives to keep us safe, and they’re often walking into situations essentially blind. If they run into a problem, they have only primitive ways of warning those coming in behind them. But, with the help of the researchers, the days of flying blind may be coming to a rapid end.

MIT has developed a prototype for a device that would allow first responders to wirelessly send layouts and information about their situation to a command base located outside of the emergency zone.

The device—which resembles a backpack—utilizes  a Microsoft Kinect camera , a laser rangefinder, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and,  in one group of experiments, a barometer.

The backpack— based on the premise of a first responder robot—utilizes its various technologies to create a map, combined with a visual video of the area to be viewed by an outside responder. The technology also has a button, which allows emergency workers to mark areas of interest or particular danger. Researchers hope in the future that users will be able to add specifics to the areas of interest.

 According to MIT, “Every few meters, the camera takes a snapshot of its surroundings, and software extracts a couple of hundred visual features from the image — particular patterns of color, or contours, or inferred three-dimensional shapes. Each batch of features is associated with a particular location on the map.”

 Obviously, the prototype is not without challenges. The technology must recognize changes in altitude so it knows when an emergency worker reaches a different floor, and doesn’t just map over the original floor. Plus, since the technology was originally used on robots, a much smoother and steadier environment than on a human, there were challenges concerning keeping the camera and other equipment from being jostled.




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