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IndoorAtlas uses magnetic fields for location-awareness in buildings and large structures

August 5, 2012

Researchers from Finland have developed a system that uses the Earth’s magnetic fields in positioning, borrowing from the adaptation that homing pigeons, spiny lobsters and dolphins have developed through thousands of years.

GPS availability on mobile devices has opened up a whole world of opportunity for smartphone and tablet owners. Positioning systems give life to maps, navigation, location-aware apps and even promos for local businesses. However, the inherent disadvantage of GPS is that it requires line-of-sight to GPS satellites. GPS systems rarely give precise positioning data while indoors.

Researchers from the University of Oulu in Finland are spinning off their work into a company named IndoorAtlas, which offers a positioing service for indoor locations.

The concept borrows from the ability of some animals to use magnetic fields to “sense their true position relative to their destination,” which can lead them to “derive positional information from local cues that arise from the local anomalies of the Earth’s magnetic field.”

IndoorAtlas basically brings the concept of the compass to a whole new level. While compasses follow the earth’s magnetic field to help find one’s bearings, IndoorAtlass will use magnetic fields generated by the Earth and other structures and objects to pinpoint one’s exact location.

In stark contrast to regular compasses, though IndoorAtlas will work better in places where a traditional compass gets interference: indoors. A compass will have problems detecting the Earth’s magnetic field in the presence of large structures like concrete buildings reinforced with steel. IndoorAtlas, on the other hand, actually maps these ambient magnetic fields to determine location information more precisely.

The company has already created a smartphone app for indoor mapping, and will release a toolbox for other developers to build upon. This will include three separate components: Floor Plans, Map Creator and an app creator. Developers should have fun with creating an image of a structure or building’s magnetic field. They will have to walk through the location to collect data.

IndoorAtlas says the system should work on any smartphone with built-in magnetic sensors and will not require any external access points. The system offers an accuracy of 0.1 to 2 meters, which should be good enough for indoor positioning.

Developers have already been building upon smartphones’ magnetic sensors, which includes both entertaining and useful apps. For instance, there’s Metal Sniffer, which turns your smartphone into a metal detector. Google’s flagship Nexus 7 is also found to have an extra magnetic sensor, which may be intended for Smart Cover-like accessories that automatically lock or unlock the tablet. The use of magnetic sensors to determine indoor locations may be the most significant development in this area, as it can augment GPS in indoor mapping and location services.