RFID tags to assist in tracking first responders

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology has been around for many years and is widely used to identify, track, and communicate information about items, products and even animals. An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is studying whether RFID technology can be used as a low cost, reliable means to track firefighters and other first responders inside buildings and help them navigate under hazardous conditions.

Typical RFID systems consist of tags, tag readers and application software. As the tagged products pass by a fixed reader they transmit data about the product and its location. The NIST researchers are looking at the "flip side." They want to know whether inexpensive RFID tags placed inside buildings can help pinpoint the location of a first responder and provide local information to a small handheld device that includes an RFID reader and a navigation unit.

In place of GPS (Global Positioning System), which is unreliable inside most buildings, the researchers are evaluating whether inertial sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes can be used as part of the navigation system to help guide the first responder through the building. Navigation systems tend to "drift" over time and become increasingly inaccurate. When a first responder carrying the device encounters a tag, the system will make corrections by correlating the tag with its location. The reader's interaction with a tag would be similar to using a "you are here" map in a shopping mall.

The research team's plans over the next several years include defining the parameters needed to determine how many tags are needed and where they should be placed, developing a prototype RFID reader, integrating the reader and navigation hardware and software into a wireless network that can relay position information to others such as an incident commander, and testing a prototype system in a smoke-filled environment.


The NIST research team recently reported on the project at the eighth annual International Symposium on Advanced Radio Technologies. For more information, see http://www.antd.nist.gov/wctg/RFID/RFIDassist.htm.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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