University of Utah engineers showed that a wireless network of radio transmitters can track people moving behind solid walls. The system could help police, firefighters and others nab intruders, and rescue hostages, fire victims and elderly people who fall in their homes. It also might help retail marketing and border control.
“By showing the locations of people within a building during hostage situations, fires or other emergencies, radio tomography can help law enforcement and emergency responders to know where they should focus their attention,” Joey Wilson and Neal Patwari wrote in one of two new studies of the method.
Both researchers are in the university’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – Patwari as an assistant professor and Wilson as a doctoral student.
Their method uses radio tomographic imaging (RTI), which can “see,” locate and track moving people or objects in an area surrounded by inexpensive radio transceivers that send and receive signals. People don’t need to wear radio-transmitting ID tags.
One of the studies – which outlines the method and tests it in an indoor atrium and a grassy area with trees – is awaiting publication soon in IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing, a journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
The study involved placing a wireless network of 28 inexpensive radio transceivers – called nodes – around a square-shaped portion of the atrium and a similar part of the lawn. In the atrium, each side of the square was almost 14 feet long and had eight nodes spaced 2 feet apart. On the lawn, the square was about 21 feet on each side and nodes were 3 feet apart. The transceivers were placed on 4-foot-tall stands made of plastic pipe so they would make measurements at human torso level.
Radio signal strengths between all nodes were measured as a person walked in each area. Processed radio signal strength data were displayed on a computer screen, producing a bird’s-eye-view, blob-like image of the person.
A second study detailed a test of an improved method that allows “tracking through walls.” That study has been placed on arXiv.org, an online archive for preprints of scientific papers. The study details how variations in radio signal strength within a wireless network of 34 nodes allowed tracking of moving people behind a brick wall.
The method was tested around an addition to Patwari’s Salt Lake City home. Variations in radio waves were measured as Wilson walked around inside. The system successfully tracked Wilson’s location to within 3 feet.
The wireless system used in the experiments was not a Wi-Fi network like those that link home computers, printers and other devices. Patwari says the system is known as a Zigbee network – the kind of network often used by wireless home thermostats and other home or factory automation.
Wilson demonstrated radio tomographic imaging during a mobile communication conference last year, and won the MobiCom 2008 Student Research Demo Competition. The researchers now have a patent pending on the method.
“I have aspirations to commercialize this,” says Wilson, who has founded a spinoff company named Xandem Technology LLC in Salt Lake City.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
How It Works
Radio tomographic imaging (RTI) is different and much less expensive than radar, in which radar or radio signals are bounced off targets and the returning echoes or reflections provide the target’s location and speed. RTI instead measures “shadows” in radio waves created when they pass through a moving person or object.
RTI measures radio signal strengths on numerous paths as the radio waves pass through a person or other target. In that sense, it is quite similar to medical CT (computerized tomographic) scanning, which uses X-rays to make pictures of the human body, and seismic imaging, in which waves from earthquakes or explosions are used to look for oil, minerals and rock structures underground. In each method, measurements of the radio waves, X-rays or seismic waves are made along many different paths through the target, and those measurements are used to construct a computer image.
In their indoor, outdoor and through-the-wall experiments, Wilson and Patwari obtained radio signal strength measurements from all the transceivers – first when the rectangle was empty and then when a person walked through it. They developed math formulas and used them in a computer program to convert weaker or “attenuated” signals – which occur when someone creates “shadows” by walking through the radio signals – into a blob-like, bird’s-eye-view image of that person walking.
RTI has advantages. “RF [radio frequency] signals can travel through obstructions such as walls, trees and smoke, while optical and infrared imaging systems cannot,” the engineers wrote. “RF imaging will also work in the dark, where video cameras will fail.”
They can really see so much more detail that this. They are watching you right now. Run around in circles or do some jumping jacks to confuse them.