Hey everyone, Ash here, Founder & CEO of Navisens, to tell you why I founded my startup:
Imagine you’re a firefighter inside a multi-story building. You’re disorientated. You can’t see through the heavy smoke. The heat is intense. You can’t find your way back out. You need help.
In this scenario you need to radio your team for help. But what if you don’t know where you are? Or what if you’re incapacitated and can’t radio for help?
The story of Navisens started out with my PhD research aimed at locating firefighters inside a multi-story building.
This is a challenging problem to solve for two primary reasons:
1) We cannot predict where a fire is going to occur. This means we cannot go into a building beforehand to install infrastructure such as Bluetooth beacons, WiFi access points, cameras, and other sensors. (Besides, if we could predict where a fire was going to occur, we’d simply evacuate the building!)
2) Even if we could install infrastructure inside every building throughout an entire city, a live fire would shut down power to the building, infrastructure would burn down, and all sensors would be rendered useless.
To address these challenges, I decided to take a unique approach to location: one that didn’t rely on infrastructure. Instead of using infrastructure-based sensors or custom hardware, Navisens uses the inertial sensors (accelerometers and gyroscopes) inside your smartphone. Why inertial sensors? Inertial sensors are self contained. They don’t require any external hardware or infrastructure. Inertial sensors were originally (and still are) used in navigation systems for defense and aerospace applications. However, these sensors are large, expensive, power hungry, and designed to be strapped down onto a platform like a vehicle. Nowadays, most modern smartphones have built-in inertial sensors but these are mass-produced and are much lower quality than the ones designed for aerospace applications. It’s impossible to run the traditional algorithms to get location information so the challenge became taking this low quality data and understanding it in a meaningful way.
This is where Navisens technology has its breakthrough. From my experience working in several robotics applications, including autonomous vehicles and participating in the 2007 Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge, my early work on Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) (that’s what we called drones back in those days) and various robotic platforms, I was familiar with many algorithms and all types of sensors including LIDAR, RADAR, cameras, GPS, and of course, inertial sensors. Thus, I decided to focus my PhD research on designing algorithms that would take data from these low-cost inertial sensors and use them for navigation purposes. This solved the initial challenge of locating firefighters inside multi-story buildings and has continued to evolve into the indoor navigation platform Navisens is today.
The initial constraints upon which Navisens was founded means it translates extremely well into locating mobile devices in day-to-day use. Navisens gives your app the unique potential to locate and navigate your users indoors. Anyone can integrate our SDK into their app and instantly have location services without installing a single piece of hardware — something that was impossible until now.
The alternatives to indoor location on the market are companies who rely on installing Bluetooth beacons and WiFi access points inside a building. Once these are installed, they still need to collect and map out data from these sensors before being able to provide location services. And after all this, the beacons and access points still aren’t very accurate for reasons I’ll get to below. In contrast, Navisens is designed to work the minute a user enters a building for the first time without any prior preparation.
Of course, we aren’t just limited to indoors: Navisens works outdoors and underground too (great for parking garages!). Outdoors, Navisens is much more accurate than GPS, where your position often jumps across the road or a few blocks away. Navisens offers smooth, continuous location. Do you have an application where the user transitions from indoors to outdoors and vice-versa? No problem — our location will continue tracking seamlessly regardless of the environment.
Why do existing location technologies perform poorly in urban areas? Existing location technologies either weren’t designed in today’s environment or weren’t meant for location in the first place. The Global Positioning System (GPS) was first created in the 1960’s for the military. It was never meant to be used by the general public using consumer devices in urban environments. GPS and similar satellite-based positioning systems were (are) designed to function when a device is in direct line of sight to a satellite.This makes them very effective for aerospace and defense applications like guiding aircraft flying above buildings. However, for the same reason, they perform poorly in indoor and urban environments where walls, buildings, and other structures block satellite signals.
What about WiFi Access Points (APs) and Bluetooth beacons? These technologies were originally designed for data transfer and not for location. To pinpoint location from these, you would need many reference points (similar to how several satellites are required for GPS). This means these location systems only function in areas with a lot of infrastructure installed. To achieve these reference points, WiFi APs and/or Bluetooth beacons need to be installed in a strategic layout throughout an entire building. This cumbersome process requires planning and is very resource heavy. e.g. selecting hardware, finding installation locations, mounting the hardware, installing wiring for power and performing regular maintenance. Infrastructure-based location systems also require “fingerprinting”, the process of collecting signal readings (“fingerprints”) every few feet in the area you’re trying to provide locations services. These fingerprints can then used as reference points. The issue with these fingerprints is that signals fluctuate in crowds as the human body absorbs and reflects Radio Frequency signals. Fingerprints are also very sensitive to changes in internal layout such as re-arranging furniture and moving objects. They can also change when WiFi APs or beacons lose functionality from issues like low battery. If just one of these problems occurs, the whole environment would potentially need to be fingerprinted again. Sounds unrealistic and unsustainable? We think so too.
As location services become more dependent on aforementioned unreliable infrastructure, location-based apps are offering frustrating experiences for their users. As smartphones use becomes increasingly widespread, it’s clear that we should focus on leveraging internal technology — exactly what we’re doing here at Navisens. We never want our customers to have to install infrastructure again!
We think of the Navisens location platform as a modern location system, designed to support contemporary use cases in areas where we actually use our mobile devices: indoors and outdoors in dense urban environments. Our goal is to be the location platform of choice for any app. Our hyper-accurate location services will better your existing application by allowing you to interact with your users with improved functionality.
Navisens evolved from a firefighter tracking system into a location platform designed to work on all mobile devices from smartphones to smartglasses. Every day we work towards a practical solution designed to support today’s applications. As an engineer, my vision during my PhD research was always to design a location technology which would have the same impact on the world as GPS. The Navisens team has embraced that vision and extended my original PhD research to become a next generation location platform. Our flexible and extremely precise location technology opens up a whole new world of applications that weren’t possible with existing location technologies.
This brings us to today: we’re making the Navisens location technology available as a cross-platform SDK for iOS and Android.
We can’t wait to see what you build!
If you like what you read, please share this article, try out our SDK, and let us know what cool apps you build!