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IU advancing investment and innovation in first responder technology

Dec 13, 2023

An initiative led by Indiana University is pushing the boundaries of technology to save first responders’ lives and expedite emergency response.

A collaboration between the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and University Information Technology Services, the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab is facilitating private investment and entrepreneurship activity in technology that provides first responders’ precise locations inside structures during a crisis and while locating survivors.

The need for growth in first responder technology mirrors the increased severity and frequency of natural disasters, said David Wild, director of the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab and a professor at the Luddy School. There is an urgent need for new technology, including AI, to manage crises in reliable, scalable and affordable ways to save lives.

There is an especially strong need for better tracking technology for first responders to assist in situational awareness, and to support future AI applications, he added. GPS can determine location, but not with the necessary accuracy to pinpoint a specific location or elevation within a building. Knowing the exact location is critical to first responders’ safety during a search-and-rescue operation.

A firefighter carries another firefighter on their back Firefighters use Ascent's location tracking technology during a training exercise. Photo courtesy of the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab

A key part of the lab’s efforts in this area has been its leadership of the First Responder Smart Tracking Challenge, a 16-month, five-phase series of competitions for first responders, companies, entrepreneurs, academics and students to find the best solution for indoor 3D tracking of first responders. The final phase of the FRST Challenge wrapped up this semester at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in south-central Indiana. IU administered the competition in partnership with Resultant, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm.

During the Phase 5 finals, first responders from the Columbus Fire Department, Indianapolis Fire Department and Bedford Police Department faced smoke, snakes, water, darkness, stairs, ladders, jail cells and tunnels at the training center, a 1,000-acre facility that features more than 190 buildings and 1.8 miles of tunnels.

Of the six teams in the competition, Ascent Integrated Technologies’ Smart Firefighting collective and AdaptiTrace each received $507,500 for excellent ratings, which was the top ranking in the competition. The other competing teams were BC Sysnav, Ravenswood, Epic Blue Dot and France’s CHARLI. A total of $1.9 million was awarded in the final phase of the competition, and a total of $4.5 million was awarded overall.

Ascent’s platform combined localization and biometric monitoring to track firefighters in 3D space — within multi-story buildings — and send alerts about detected emergencies or anomalies. The system uses sensors attached to first responders’ equipment that stream thermal imaging, environmental conditions and location data. It also monitors CO2 levels, humidity and airborne metal oxide. Next, the company aims to build a more complete product suite that integrates other features, such as biometric data and environmental context.

Three uniformed first responders walk in a row with a smartphone device strapped to their helmets Firefighters and police officers test AdaptiTrace's location tracking system at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center. Photo courtesy of the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab

AdaptiTrace’s system also is attachable to first responders’ equipment. It uses sensor fusion technology to apply principles from the latest robotics localization and mapping technologies to track first responders’ location in real time via algorithms that process a variety of sensor data. The system generates a multi-layered 3D map as first responders move through a building.

Judges determined the winning team based on how well its design fulfilled the overall criteria, including scalability, ruggedization, affordability and usability.

Through the FRST Challenge innovations, Wild said IU has created a repeatable model for rapid, accelerated technological solutions to these emergencies.

“There is an urgency to solving critical problems like these given the increasing climate crisis,” he added. “With support from the competition, several teams will soon have a product available for first responders that is affordable and effective. I am proud of how IU has facilitated this . We are ready to work with partners for the next challenge.”

Sonny Kirkley, director of the FRST Challenge and an adjunct professor at the Luddy School, said safety and speed are crucial for first responders. He said the technology supported by the FRST Challenge will show officials exactly where their people are through a system that adapts to how first responders work and move, which changes if they are carrying a person or crawling over obstacles.

A large group of people pose for the camera in a large auditorium space Participants in the fifth round of the the First Responder Smart Tracking Challenge. Sonny Kirkley, center, is director of the FRST Challenge. Photo courtesy of the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab

The teams developed algorithms and used data to train their systems to analyze those movements to ensure accurate tracking, he added. The technology improves upon radio tracking, which is currently used to track firefighters but is ineffective when they are lost and surrounded by smoke.

IU’s administration of the FRST Challenge was supported by an $8 million award from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Public Safety Communications Research Division.

Wild said the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology on a plan to continue working with these teams — as well as the greater location-based services community — to improve their products and bring them to market. This includes helping them move to develop products and businesses, Kirkley said.

“We want partners for the next big project,” Wild said. “The key, as always, is safety.”


Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering

Pete DiPrimio

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