Indoor navigation: finding its way into 2017

Joe Svetlik

Thursday 6 April 2017

Digital navigation is coming in from the cold and it will soon be able to help us map indoors. But before that can happen, there are plenty of obstacles that competing technologies must find their way around before it can change the way we live.

Digital navigation has revolutionised the way we travel. Even if you know the way to your destination, chances are, you might fire up a mapping app to check on traffic conditions. But the next step in navigation isn’t greater accuracy or better integration into wearable devices – it’s mapping the indoor spaces where we live and work.

According to Deloitte, by 2022, at least a quarter of all digitally-mapped journeys will be partially, if not entirely, travelled indoors; that figure is currently under five percent. For now, indoor navigation is something of a blind spot, as satellite navigation signals are too weak to penetrate solid roofs. Sure, you might be able to find the building where your meeting is held, but locating the meeting room itself is a different matter altogether.

In its current guise, indoor digital navigation relies on Wi-Fi networks and signals from cellular base stations. The problem with this system is that a dense concentration of people between the router and receiver (usually a mobile phone) can easily disrupt the signal, as can the presence of metal objects like shelves and displays. Thankfully, improvements are on the way.

Innovations around the corner

With more base stations being deployed, these services are becoming more accurate. Small cellular base stations, such as femtocells, can also be used for tracking visitors, to great accuracy.

In some sports stadiums, visitors are tracked with beacons, which can be accurate to within a metre. Small, inexpensive and Bluetooth-enabled, they’re so accurate they can guide someone to a seat on a train or to a particular shelf in a supermarket.

LED lights can also be used for indoor navigation and provide accuracy to within half a metre. That’s because they send a unique identifier to a receiving device, such as a smartphone. LEDs require little energy, making them cheap to run. However, they are not widely used compared to older lighting solutions like traditional bulbs.

Other indoor mapping tools include ultra-wideband that is accurate to between 5cm and 10cm, and magnetic positioning, which uses the digital compass inside your phone.

The current state of play

The big players in satellite navigation are already making inroads into bringing mapping indoors. But they’re not the only ones. Pointr is an indoor navigation solution that works on your phone, tablet, desktop and laptop. It’s already being used in busy environments like airports and for industry-specific functions, like asset tracking in warehouses.

Indoor navigation has huge potential to change the way we live. While there remain obstacles in the way of uptake, once it becomes a part of our daily routine, we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.


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