Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Automatic building mapping could help emergency responders

Larry Hardesty in MIT News: MIT researchers have built a wearable sensor system that automatically creates a digital map of the environment through which the wearer is moving. The prototype system, described in a paper slated for the Intelligent Robots and Systems conference in Portugal next month, is envisioned as a tool to help emergency responders coordinate disaster response.

In experiments conducted on the MIT campus, a graduate student wearing the sensor system wandered the halls, and the sensors wirelessly relayed data to a laptop in a distant conference room. Observers in the conference room were able to track the student’s progress on a map that sprang into being as he moved.

Connected to the array of sensors is a handheld pushbutton device that the wearer can use to annotate the map. In the prototype system, depressing the button simply designates a particular location as a point of interest. But the researchers envision that emergency responders could use a similar system to add voice or text tags to the map — indicating, say, structural damage or a toxic spill.

“The operational scenario that was envisioned for this was a hazmat situation where people are suited up with the full suit, and they go in and explore an environment,” says Maurice Fallon, a research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and lead author on the new paper. “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. We want to try to automate that.”...

The prototype sensor included a stripped-down Microsoft Kinect camera (top) and a laser rangefinder (bottom), which looks something like a camera lens seen side-on. Photo: Patrick Gillooly

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