Ask any consumer if they remember the days before GNSS technology was in every new car and on every phone. What about before sites like Mapquest had them enter a starting address and destination to get turn-by-turn directions? You had to figure out how to get from point A to point B by looking at a map. Yet even this analog technology presupposes something: Your travels were headed down charted territory. First, you had to have the survey and geospatial work completed to produce reliable maps.
Here on Planet Earth, we’re more than a few centuries removed from the “here be dragons” era of cartography. As we look toward interplanetary exploration, we’re back to square one when it comes to getting the literal lay of the land. Given that the abbreviation GPS all consumers are familiar with stands for Global Positioning System (with the globe in question being the one on which we live), it’s a fair assumption that GPS doesn’t work in outer space.
When voyages to Mars start taking flight, travelers will need a novel technology to chart their path. The next era of exploration requires a more advanced positioning technology that may be based on tagging.
A new tracking technology provides a portable, low-cost tool to log movement, location, and environmental sensory data. Developed at The Ohio State University by leading geospatial scientist Dr. Alper Yilmaz and licensed by Ubihere, small tags come programmed with software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to collect and analyze data on the tag’s surroundings. This data is then used to chart the terrain in question or keep tabs on items as they move through GNSS-impermeable environments. The data can travel via wireless systems and on-board radio a little more than nine miles (15 km) away. (Longer-range versions can be constructed with a maximum range of about 65 miles.) The firm has also developed this tracking technology to be used in mounted cameras that analyze what is in view.
Ubihere has been developing its technology for more than a decade in partnership with a handful of government entities — including NASA and Department of Defense. Among the company’s goals with the space agency: helping to chart exploration on the Moon, Mars, and on a planned manned mission to an asteroid, all on the books for the next couple of decades. In essence, since there isn’t any Navistar in space, the software behind the tags just might help interplanetary travelers, whether NASA probe or eventual space tourist, find their way.
How Non-GNSS Positioning Works
The solution consists of two products: one uses cameras that can track in real time any equipment or person that they’re trained to track — without the need to use facial recognition. The second is a tag which can be affixed to any object to track its movements, both indoors and outdoors.
The camera-based product surveils the surrounding environment and delivers data to the installed machine-based learning system and sensors to sketch out a blueprint of the area. Installed at a fixed point, such as an exploration base, the camera detects the location of the item or the person that it is pre-programmed to track, in real time and without facial recognition. The cameras store raw data, rather than the images themselves.
The tag option works with the sensors on the item being tracked, delivering information to a central command point. The tags collect data on the environment such as changes in terrain, temperature, wind, and even smells to plot out their adventures.
The resulting maps, drawn in two- and three-dimensions as needs dictate, are accurate down to the centimeter. Over time, the map information of the area in question will grow more comprehensive with consistent use.
The good news for us terrestrial dwellers is that we get to take advantage of this space-age technology now. On Earth, the technology has already gotten battle-tested — literally.
Giving Directions Without GNSS
By way of its partnership with OSU, Ubihere has issued commercial licenses to the military and defense contractors looking for ways to track soldiers and munitions in the field in areas where GNSS data is scant, if not blocked or non-existent. Tags can be attached to a uniform, a vehicle, or gun to keep track of those items in the field.
Similarly, on a construction site, tags can be used to track people, tools, and vehicles. Their small size allows the tags to go largely undetected and allows the worker to move unencumbered, with data on location and the surrounding environment automatically sent to the tag operator.
Picture a remote construction site where the workforce is at a project site surrounded by mountains. The nearest cell phone service is an hour’s drive away, yet you need to keep track of your workers, tools, vehicles, etc. Before sending off your crew, your specialist ensures they all have tags in their front pockets. As they move throughout the project site, the tags deliver information on their whereabouts and the conditions to the central command station, delivering key intelligence in the process.
The technology is already getting on-boarded by at least two branches of the US military: Ubihere has won two contracts from the Air Force and an Army Technical Award, a military rough equivalent of the hit reality show Shark Tank.
Tags are making inroads on vehicles, including self-driving cars and conventional cars with built-in navigation systems, all of which can benefit from the tags’ ability to detect the environment, nearby vehicles, and features on the road.
As anyone who has spent time in a hospital can attest, figuring out directions in a large healthcare facility’s myriad hallways can be confusing at best and harrowing at worst. Now imagine the frustration of medical professionals who, on top of trying to understand the labyrinth of that hospital floorplan, need to find the nearest X-ray machine while their patient is waiting down the hall. Installing tags on key medical equipment can help health systems keep track of inventory, including information on its whereabouts. Along similar lines, Ubihere’s cameras mounted on doorways can deliver information on who is entering a room in a medical facility, and at what time.
What do astronauts and physicians have in common, beyond being well-trained scientists? They both have to navigate complex questions — and often, physical obstacles — in order to find their answers. That same technology that can guide an astronaut through a crater back to the landing module can easily guide a physician through a hospital’s jungle of corridors. Interplanetary travel presents a whole bevy of challenges to many questions whose answers we’ve come to take for granted: finding directions, maps, and general geography. By battle-testing tools developed for exploration of space here on Earth, travel to Mars can be less stressful than getting lost in a hospital hallway … but maybe a heck of a lot more exciting.