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Wearable Sensor System Creates Real-Time Environment Maps

Maurice Fallon wearing the prototype sensor array (MIT)

Maurice Fallon wearing the prototype sensor array (Patrick Gillooly, MIT)

Computer scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a portable array of sensors that can create a digital map of a person’s environment, such as a building, while the person wearing the system walks around that environment. Maurice Fallon (pictured right), a research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and colleagues, will discuss the prototype system at the Intelligent Robots and Systems conference in Portugal next month.

The system has a number of sensors, performing different functions, attached to a sheet of hard plastic about the size of an iPad, and worn on the chest. Fallon and colleagues envision the system as a way to quickly capture a building’s layout that can help first responders find locate building occupants in an emergency. “The operational scenario that was envisioned for this,” says Fallon, “was a hazmat situation where people are suited up with the full suit, and they go in and explore an environment.”

The sensors include a laser range finder that sweeps a beam in a 270 degree arc and measures the time for the light pulses to return. If the sensor is kept level it can provide accurate measures of the distance to the nearest walls. Since people wearing the system are not likely to keep the range finder level, the system also has gyroscopes to tell when the range finder is tilted and accelerometers to indicate if the person wearing the device is speeding up or slowing down.

Another sensor is a barometer that tells when the person wearing the system moves from one floor to another. The barometer, says Fallon, gives an accurate reading of altitude, from which a floor number can be derived.

A camera on the system snaps a photo every few meters, which the system’s software associates with a particular location on the map. The photos add patterns of color or contours, or inferred three-dimensional shapes to the map.

The system’s software also has the capability to correct previous readings, when the person wearing the sensor array revisits a location. New snapshots help make the updates and corrections on the map.

In the following video, Fallon tells more about and demonstrates the mapping system prototype.

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