As soldiers, firefighters, and other first responders face the challenges of the 21st century, many of them rely on 20th century technology. They carry walkie talkies into danger while their support teams have no idea where they are. Thanks to a team with the University of Florida College of Engineering's Integrated Product & Process Design Program, that's about to change.
These students have developed a system that locates, tracks, and communicates with emergency personnel in remote areas where cell-phone towers and other communications infrastructure don't exist. It comprises FieldUnits, carried by the personnel, and Smart-Nodes, which manage the data. The students constructed the system inexpensively using off-the-shelf parts.
About the size of a cell phone, the Field-Unit is equipped with GPS technology. It operates in StandAlone and SmartLink modes. In StandAlone mode, the unit simply sends location information back to the SmartNode. It also offers panic-button capabilities, allowing personnel to send messages like "need more water," "pull me out," or "help!"
The SmartLink mode adds a PDA to the unit for more flexibility (see the figure). The PDA can display a map that indicates where each FieldUnit is located. It also lets users communicate with each other and with their command station via text messaging. In theory, developers could add cameras or even sensors like temperature gauges and gas detectors to the units for additional functionality.
The students chose lithium-ion batteries for the FieldUnits' power source because of the charge they can hold. Also, the students housed their Field-Units in off-the-shelf boxes with cut-out holes sealed in epoxy. The program's sponsors—WinTec Arrowmaker Inc., Chang Industries, U.S. Special Operations, and the U.S. Forest Service—will develop more rugged packaging suitable for fires, combat zones, and other dangerous environments.
The SmartNode is a laptop equipped with a radio transmitter and receiver. The FieldUnits and SmartNode communicate via 900-MHz transceivers. The students chose this frequency because of its range and its data bandwidth. Also, they wanted the system to operate in an open FCC frequency range, which was one of the project's requirements.
CONNECTED AROUND THE WORLD
The FieldUnits and SmartNodes don't limit their communication to their immediate area, though. The team developed software that lets the SmartNode dial out using a satellite phone that automatically connects to an FTP server. It can update data to the server or read new data from a file. Since this is through the Internet, the server can be located at a basestation anywhere in the world.
Team member William Goh said that the project's major challenge was defining the protocol that would ensure that the communications links function smoothly and efficiently. So, the students wrote software the basestation could use to track all SmartNodes and FieldUnits without dropping any "calls."
Also, the system's radio range means that FieldUnits can't stray more than a mile away from the SmartNodes.
Multiple SmartNodes or even airborne drones equipped with SmartNodes could extend that range.
The Integrated Product & Process Design Program helps corporations, small businesses, and government agencies with engineering problems while giving students practical experience with real-world projects. The students on the design team spent about 20 to 30 hours a week on the semester-long project.
"It was tough at times, but when the final product is a representation of our planning, design, and hard work, it's worth it," said electrical and computer engineering senior Michael Kessler. The team also included faculty leader Karl Gugel and students Rolando Estrella, Zachery Jacobson, Julie Ramirez, Adnan Rashid, and Andrew Sciullo.
University of Florida