Tech & Science

Indoor GPS Is the Final Frontier of Personalized Navigation

In the Magazine
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Labs in the U.S. and U.K. are working on next-generation GPS that’s so cool, it won’t even use satellites. It will instead take location cues from subatomic variations in the earth’s magnetic field.

This is good news, especially given the imminent arrival of self-driving cars. We don’t want a GPS satellite to go dark years from now, leaving thousands of driverless cars in California circling the streets as if stoned out of their gourds: “Dude, did we pass the McDonald’s, like, two minutes ago or two hours ago?”

The new “quantum GPS” will also fit on a microchip and require little power, which means it can be built into everyday items, not just smartphones. It will be so accurate it could pinpoint an item inside your house to within inches. In other words, I will finally be able to find my keys.

GPS technology goes back to the 1960s, developed by the Navy to track its submarines. The first commercial GPS unit came out 25 years ago, but the system didn’t enter most of our lives until the past decade, when it started to be built into smartphones. GPS is the key reason mobile apps have changed life in ways desktop computer software never could. Transportation network company Uber uses GPS to find taxis and limos near you. Real estate company Zillow shows listings in the neighborhood you’re walking through and admiring. Dating app Tinder points out the nearest people you might have sex with.

Of course, the big kahuna of GPS apps is personal navigation. We’d be lost without it. (Badum-bum!) Meanwhile, commercial applications for GPS, from farming to supply chain logistics, have become critical to the economy, and nobody wants to think about the implications for the military of a GPS meltdown. That drone meant for a cave in Pakistan might show up at Buckingham Palace.

For all the magic of GPS, it’s still dependent on Sputnik-era ideas, which means it’s a little clunky and not fail-safe. The military worries that GPS satellites could get jammed or knocked out. GPS by itself is accurate to about 25 feet, which is fine for driving but less than perfect for guiding you to the Pop-Tarts in Safeway.

In fact, to be more accurate, your phone cross-references GPS with location information it can glean from Wi-Fi and cellphone signals. That mix requires processing power and battery power that are easy enough to provide in a smartphone, but makes it tough to build GPS into keys or a kids’ toy.

So the U.S. and U.K. have been funding work to build a better, satellite-free GPS. The U.S. program, guided by the military, is called Micro-PNT. Its goal is to build everything needed for location-sensing into a single, tiny, low-power chip. Each chip would have to include its own little atomic clock and super-accurate gyroscopes and accelerometers. It would determine its position from micro-variations in the Earth’s magnetic field. U.K. military scientists say they’re three to five years from developing similar technology they’re calling a “quantum compass.”

The science is challenging and working versions are years down the road, but this stuff will get built. Today’s GPS is only a beginning. The military will jump on quantum GPS first, building it into weapons, drones, soldiers’ uniforms, robots and so on.

For civilian applications, one of the more intriguing aspects of quantum GPS is its ability to work indoors with great precision. Right now, Google, Apple and Microsoft—the big three of online maps and navigation—see “indoor GPS” as a tantalizing new opportunity. You can use outdoor GPS to find the nearest coffee shop in just about any village in the world. But you can’t rely on your phone to guide you to coffee inside an airport terminal or Las Vegas casino.

There are two steps to creating indoor GPS. The first is mapping the indoors, and that’s underway. Google, for instance, has collected indoor maps of places like Wembley Stadium in London and Caesars Palace in Vegas. As indoor mapping trickles down to smaller buildings, we’ll start getting maps of the aisles of every Home Depot and Starbucks, of classrooms in college buildings, and maps of the labyrinths of hospitals that tend to act like Roach Motels for visitors. Sooner or later, an entity like Google Maps will store maps of every indoor space, including blueprints of homes.

Satellite signals don’t reach indoors, especially someplace like the windowless bowels of a casino. Apple last year paid $20 million for a startup called WiFiSLAM, which analyzes Wi-Fi signals to help a smartphone pinpoint its location indoors. Other companies are working on similar approaches. Such technologies can be accurate within about 10 feet.

In another decade, the huge databases of indoor maps will be paired with quantum GPS, which will have the ability to work indoors and outdoors and be precise to within inches.

Then your smartphone could guide you to your seat in a stadium or an open $10 blackjack table at Caesars. It could also find the roofing nails at Home Depot or the press-on nails at Wal-Mart.

This should be a boon for consumer robots. Just think about the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Now it’s basically blind and using software to figure out the edges of a room and a vacuuming pattern so it gets the whole floor. A Roomba with quantum GPS and a map of your house could just go to work, knowing precisely where it is at all times. Imagine that ability in a robot deployed to clean up your bedroom or provide roaming security in an indoor space.

Satellite-based GPS touched off a wave of innovations like Uber and Tinder. Quantum GPS will do the same. As quantum GPS chips get smaller and cheaper, almost anything could be given the ability to know where it is. Quantum GPS Barbie could know she’s in the same room with Ken and start to blush and toss her hair.

No doubt the technology will be applied to one of the great problems of an aging society. Car keys have already turned into chunky electronic gadgets. Add quantum GPS and your keys can let your phone know they are on the bathroom sink, where you were checking your Cialis supply while updating your profile on Tinder.  

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