When we think of time, we do not think of the technology behind it, or its ubiquity, then why so with location? Reaching this stage of ubiquity will enable location-based applications with wide societal benefits.
Location, as a reference, has always been with us. Along with time, it forms the continuum that we always use. While we have made significant progress in observing and providing a scientific reference to time, we have unfortunately not made the same advancements with location. From having day and night as the reference of time, we now have time in every gadget that we carry. Through the watch, time has evolved as a separate identity — even though there is technology involved behind the depiction of time through a watch, one never thinks of the technology.
For location though, while major strides have been made in the past two decades, we are far from having a seamless scientific approach of its depiction. Our usage of location is still predominately landmark-based, just as our reference for time was sunlight-based 500 years ago. And, whenever we go beyond landmark references, we immediately turn our focus onto the technology behind location. We still think “this location information is coming from GNSS”! Our approach to location has not yet reached a stage where it is so allpervasive that we don”t even think about it; it is just there.
It is to this stage of ubiquity of location that we need to move. The granularity of time has improved from the sunlight being a reference to capturing time in milliseconds. The higher the precision we achieve in time, the higher is the granularity. This has immensely increased the applications developed to take advantage of the new capabilities. Do we ever read articles on “time based services”? The same should happen with location.
Today, ‘location’ is confined to outdoors. But gradually, location technology will move indoors. Once ‘outdoor’ and ‘indoor’ merge seamlessly, we will not be even talking about ”location-based” services — we will see ”location-enabled” services, where location acts as an enabler to existing services. One can take any service they are offering and add location to it for an enhanced and enriching experience.
Location technology also needs to graduate from the transitory applications we see today, like tracking employees, tracking vehicles, or finding a friend”s whereabouts on social networking sites, to influencing societal behaviour at large and making a positive contribution to society. This is where the real impact and real applications of location enablement lie.
The enabling factors
Let us consider the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Through their surveys, the terrorists had a complete blueprint of the hotel they attacked and were holed in. Having the ability to locate individuals indoors, both friend and foe, can enable real-time informed decision- making by security officials.
Location enablement can help address public safety too. Citizens, especially women, often find themselves in environment where they do not feel very safe. If instruments, like the mobile phone, are location enabled, then just one call can make all the difference. Location enablement can therefore contribute to citizen empowerment and citizen safety. Recently, Russia announced an initiative called ERAGLONASS (ERA: emergency roadside assistance). It stipulates that by 2016, every vehicle in Russia will have a GLONASS tracking device. Any vehicle”s registration and annual renewal will be subject to the tracking device installation. The larger purpose of this is public safety. The tracking device will enable people in the control room to receive an alert in case of an accident, locate the site, monitor the situation, understand the severity, and accordingly decide how to respond to the incident — whether to send police or an air ambulance.
Another instance is the use of location technology in health care. There are numerous activities globally for collection of healthrelated and census data. The granularity of this data varies. It is usually at block level or district level. It needs to be collected at the neighbourhood level. Health problems are often due to the environment in a particular area. Adding location to health statistics can help narrow the region of interest, allowing for deeper analysis which leads to identification of the root cause.
Another usage of location, primarily indoor location, is providing care for the elderly. People who live away from their elderly parents are concerned about their safety and well-being. Integrating location technology with a different kind of sensors can enable tracking activities of individuals, like waking up, sitting, walking and provide a fair idea on the physical wellbeing of a person. Also any unfortunate incident, like a fall, one can be immediately alerted along with the location of the person concerned. This empowers us to take the required action in case of any accident.
Location technology can make tremendous contribution to agrarian countries like India. Data on key indicators is already being captured — rainfall, soil contamination, plant diseases in the field etc. These are, however, currently not locationenabled. For instance, often a picture of a diseased crop is taken and sent for analysis. But, adding location (and time) to it enables richer analysis. If it is found that the disease is progressing in a particular direction, then the farmers with farms downwind can be forewarned so that they can take preventive measures. There are applications today where one takes a picture and uploads it on social media that allows one to geotag it. We need to replicate this ability for societal benefits also.
At another level, location enablement can play a tremendous role in document management. Both the government and the private sector possess sensitive documents that often end up getting pulled out of computers and shared in unauthorised ways. What if these documents can be ”location locked”? Locationlocking these documents and ensuring they open only at pre-designated location/s, even by the persons authorised to open it, brings another level of security. Another aspect of document management is file management in countries where government offices have not completely gone the e-way. Tracing physical files, very often becomes a humongous task, severely affecting efficiencies in state departments. Here, the use of passive ”indoor location” technology can make a difference.
Document management and tracing also has relevance in the academic sector in countries like India where paper and pen examinations are the norm. Examination papers are often leaked by a handful of people trying to make a fast buck. This frequently results in cancellation of papers, jeopardising the careers of scores of students. By integrating wide area location technology with proximity positioning, question papers and answer sheets can be uniquely tracked.
Over the last decade, signals from GNSS satellites have been enhanced and accuracy of positioning has been improved. The completion of the GLONASS satellite system and the use of multi-system receivers have significantly improved availability of location in outdoor environments. The next step should be augmentation of satellite-based GNSS systems with terrestrial as well as inertial systems. It is this combination that will deliver accurate location inside buildings, thereby enabling in-building applications and deeper positioning. The technologies in the terrestrial systems will not only use the existing infrastructure, including cellular towers and broadcast towers, but solution providers will also deploy proprietary networks to provide deeper in-building positioning. Another interesting aspect is that inbuilding space is three-dimensional and value is derived when Z-axis accuracy is achieved. The inertial and terrestrial systems will address the Z-axis. Devices enabled with pressure sensors that can tell users which floor of a multi-storey building they are on will augment this solution.
Soon, we will see that GNSS systems will guide a user to the front door; from there the inertial systems will take over for indoor navigation. It is not long before we start having this experience without having to think about the underlying technology. That will be the day when location will be ubiquitous and allpervasive.