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First Responder Smart Tracking Challenge awards $1.1M to teams developing tracking technology

May 8, 2023

Participants in a competition run by Indiana University’s Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab are getting closer to bringing a lifesaving solution to market that will provide precise tracking of first responders while they’re inside buildings.

Four firefighters Members of the Columbus Fire Department helped test the tracking technologies by running through several real-world scenarios. Photo by Kevin Sofen, W.S. Darley & Co.

Six teams won $1.1 million during the most recent phase of the FRST Challenge — First Responder Smart Tracking — to continue developing their technologies. The competition brings together academics, entrepreneurs, students and first responders from around the world to develop 3D tracking that shows the exact indoor location of a first responder in real time — precision that isn’t possible using GPS.

“Firefighters get lost in fires regularly and have to be rescued, but they’re primarily tracked by radio, which isn’t effective when there’s so much smoke you can’t see,” said Sonny Kirkley, program director of the FRST Challenge and adjunct professor in the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. “There are a lot of other missions where safety and speed are also crucial, and developing this technology will allow first responders to see exactly where their people are at all times.”

The Public Safety Communications Research Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded IU $8 million to administer the competition.

During the most recent phase of the challenge, teams had their tracking solutions tested in several real-world scenarios at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, including a search-and-rescue mission, building fire and active-shooter simulation.

“Part of the purpose here is to find a scalable solution that adapts to how first responders really work,” Kirkley said. “They move their bodies in different ways if they’re carrying a person or crawling over obstacles, so participants have to develop algorithms and use data to train their systems about what those movements mean to ensure accurate tracking.”

A jail Teams put their prototypes through field testing at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, which includes several different environments first responders may encounter, including a jail. Photo by Kevin Sofen, W.S. Darley & Co.The six teams will advance to the final phase of the competition in October, where their tracking prototypes will undergo advanced field testing. By the end of the challenge, IU will have awarded a total of $5.6 million to help teams further develop their technologies and bring them to market.

“Thanks to the FRST Challenge, first responders will be safer, even as they have to tackle more emergencies and disasters due to our changing environment,” said David Wild, director of the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab and professor in the Luddy School. “By bringing together technologists, companies, researchers and community practitioners, incentivized by over $5.6 million in prize money, IU is creating a repeatable model for rapid, accelerated technological solutions to critical problems being faced by the world.”

The FRST Challenge also provides valuable opportunities for students working in the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab. Some had the opportunity to help administer field tests of the prototypes at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, while others are working on related uses that have been sparked by the competition.


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Barbara Brosher

Executive Director of Storytelling and Research Communications, and Interim Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications

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