The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) teamed with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop POINTER, a groundbreaking first responder tracking technology that uses magnetoquasistatic fields to three-dimensionally locate responders during emergencies—especially when visibility is low due to heavy smoke or debris. With POINTER, incident command can pinpoint team members within one meter.
POINTER is a groundbreaking new first responder tracking technology developed by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL) that allows first responders to pinpoint their colleagues more precisely in emergency scenarios. Using the POINTER system, firefighters can not only track team members to the exact floor in a building, but also determine whether they are still or in motion, standing upright or lying down.
Unlike existing GPS-based tracking technologies, POINTER uses magnetoquasistatic (MQS) fields to geolocate individuals and high value assets in environments where line of sight is severely compromised. POINTER can penetrate most natural materials like dirt, earth, water and thin metals from a standoff distance of 70 meters, determining an individual’s exact position within a structure within one meter of accuracy.
POINTER does not require a large network of built-in infrastructure; the system consists of receivers worn by first responders that are smaller than a cell phone, transmitters based on emergency vehicles, and a base station laptop that runs algorithms to track and display the receivers visually.
This type of location and tracking technology was the number one priority identified by members of S&T’s First Responder Resource Group, and the responders’ input has been incorporated throughout the research and development process. Additional operational field testing will continue throughout 2021 and POINTER should be commercially available for agencies to purchase in early 2022.
How POINTER Works
What are MQS fields?
MQS fields are magnetic fields with very slow temporal variations and that appear static just like the Earth’s magnetic field. And, like the Earth’s magnetic field, MQS fields penetrate through most natural materials. As a result, they can be used in a broad array of sensor applications.
What are some examples of how MQS fields are currently used?
MQS fields can be beneficial in applications where information or sensing is needed where a clear line-of-sight (LoS) is not available. This includes position sensing in buildings or homes—like with POINTER—as well as in wireless communications and power transfer technologies currently being used to power smart phones in similar environments.
How does POINTER’s MQS positioning differ from other responder tracking technologies?
Several tracking technologies currently exist that use GPS, acoustic sensors, radar ranging, ultra-wideband ranging, inertial sensing or vision techniques. But, there are drawbacks, including: high error rates due to multi-path or signal bouncing in LoS-denied environments; inability to penetrate into buildings and underground; a drift in position results that increases quickly over time or distance traveled; or requirements for a large network of built-in infrastructure in order to operate. These drawbacks severely limit their use in life-or-death first responder applications. By using MQS fields, POINTER can be quickly deployed and can track and locate first responders in rural 2-3 story homes, warehouses and low-rise buildings within one meter of accuracy.
So, how does POINTER work?
MQS fields can be used for short- or long-range position sensing in LoS-denied environments. The POINTER system consists of three parts that each play a unique role in pinpointing responders’ exact locations:
- POINTER transmitters based at the incident scene generate MQS fields and use complex sensors and algorithms to solve for position and orientation in 3D space (x, y, z axis). This allows command to pinpoint responders’ location so precisely, including which floor a team member is located on and whether or not they are in motion, standing or lying down.
- As they respond to incidents, first responders physically wear a receiver that detects the MQS fields and sends data back to command. This receiver is currently the size of a cell phone and will continue to be scaled down (and potentially incorporated into existing response technologies) as POINTER approaches commercialization in early 2022.
Finally, a visual component gives incident command an actual view of responders as they make their way through an incident scene. Command can watch progress and is alerted if a team member may need rapid intervention.
POINTER FAQs For Responders
Have first responders been involved in POINTER development and testing?
Members of S&T’s First Responder Resource Group indicated that location and tracking is their number one technology priority. Their input has been invaluable since the inception of POINTER’s research and development, and the responders will be instrumental during operational user testing throughout 2021.
What is the size and weight of the POINTER receivers worn by responders?
The receivers will weigh only ounces and will be smaller and lighter than a cell phone.
How are POINTER receivers powered?
POINTER receivers will feature a small, rechargeable lithium battery.
How accurate is POINTER’s tracking capability?
POINTER can accurately track a responder’s location to within a meter—often within centimeters—from a standoff distance of up to 70 meters.
Where will my POINTER system work?
The first POINTER version release will be designed for use in single family homes, warehouses and buildings that are three stories or less. Future versions of POINTER will accurately track first responders in high-rise buildings, outdoors and subterranean environments at a greater distance.
When will POINTER be commercially available?
A soft commercial launch is targeted for early 2022, with a full commercial rollout of first-generation POINTER expected in the first half of 2022. Updates will be posted here on the S&T website, as well as via industry partner Balboa Geolocation, Inc.
Is POINTER expensive?
From the start, POINTER was developed to be a low-cost technology solution that can be easily used by response agencies of all sizes and locations—from major metropolitan areas to rural volunteer departments.
Are there additional use cases for POINTER beyond the fire service?
Yes, there are. The first release of POINTER will be dedicated for fire service use, but future generations of the technology will be adapted for the specific needs of additional response disciplines.
POINTER FAQs for Industry
Who is leading POINTER’s research and development efforts?
S&T is funding the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, to develop the POINTER system. S&T is also working with industry partner Balboa Geolocation, Inc. to prepare the technology for the commercial marketplace in early 2022.
Can the POINTER system be integrated with existing response technologies?
Balboa is currently working with industry, manufacturers and engineering firms on ways to deploy POINTER as both a standalone system and an integrated component in already-existing response technologies.
Who are POINTER’s end users?
Initial end users are members of the fire service. Ultimately, POINTER could be adapted for use by law enforcement, military/Department of Defense, border security, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Secret Service, FEMA, even industry—for marine subsurface tracking; Internet of Things supply chain tracking; smart cities indoor tracking and navigation; robotics; safety and tracking of miners; and more.