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Outdoor/Indoor Positioning Technology - An Introduction

Nunzio Gambale, CEO of Locata Corporation Ltd., talks to AZoSensors about reliable Outdoor/Indoor Positioning Technology. 

What inspired you to develop a LocataNet, the world’s first positioning system to locally replicate a GPS satellite constellation?

My business partner David Small and I were the two founders of Locata, way back in 1994. We were geeks playing around with new GPS devices as to us it was an exciting emerging technology, and it was just starting to “come online” at the time.

We both owned music businesses at that time so, initially, we weren’t really in “the industry” at all. But we started to develop some interesting technology based around our thoughts of what positioning should do for applications (and which nowadays are being called location-based services, or LBS). Our first patent for this system we were developing was submitted in 1995, well before most of the world could even spell GPS!

The inspiration for Locata came from using GPS as a positioning system to give us targeted information in specific areas, but we found it stopped working as soon as I stepped inside a building!

This was not something that we either expected, or that the industry even acknowledged as a problem. We discovered this back in 1997, and it was a pivotal moment. We immediately understood that what the world was expecting from GPS - i.e., ubiquitous positioning in all locations providing an accurate reading - we realised that there wasn’t any way a satellite system was going to be able to allow a positioning system to work indoors and in deep urban areas.

So, fundamentally, we were one of the first to see all of the holes that the GPS could just never fill. Of course today, 15 years on, we realize these holes are where Apple® and Google® want to give you ads inside a mall for example, or where Wal-Mart wants to position an automated forklift inside their warehouse, or where the military want to find their soldiers in urban areas and inside buildings, or find firemen inside buildings.

All of these requirements cannot be delivered by satellite as there are too many problems with the physics of flying satellites in space, and the signals that you can realistically achieve from that sort of system.

So we started to look at ways we could fill the holes. Little did we realize the enormity of that task. Over many years David invented and we refined a device we call a LocataLite – it’s the size of a video cassette, yet it does the same job as a 250 million dollar satellite. You place these devices around an area where you want to “fill the GPS hole”. When we turn these devices on, they create a local radio network that looks and performs exactly the same as a GPS satellite constellation.

The key invention here is that the LocataLites create the network without the need for an atomic clock, without the incredibly complex ground station infrastructure which is essential to GPS, and all of the complicated control processes which the US military control, and which cost the US taxpayer 2 billion dollars per annum to make it all work.

Our LocataNet (that’s what we call our “local GPS network) can scale beautifully… I can set one up in your office, yet the same LocataLites can cover 6,500 sq km (2,500 square miles) for the US Air Force for a contract they recently gave us for the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico. That network, which will be operational in the last half of this year, is over 75 times the size of Manhattan! So our word “local” can scale over vast areas, very easily.

This new positioning device becomes a game-changer when you realize all of the GPS holes (such as a mall, a warehouse, a museum, downtown urban area, emergency services area, inside an open-cut mine, or myriad other environments you can think of) can now “be filled” - Locata’s inventions bring the promise of giving your applications unbelievable positioning reliability in the future – something that is just never going to be available with satellites. This is what has driven us for years - to provide a high-end positioning system wherever it is needed.

There was an announcement recently that Locata has just been chosen by the famed Vehicle Research Centre in the USA as “core technology” for testing next-generation collision avoidance in cars. What are the main types of crash avoidance technologies currently being used?

Crash avoidance system is just one more use for Locata technology. Because we supply a system that looks exactly like GPS in the holes I described earlier, we can actually supplement GPS with our technology (it looks exactly the same as GPS to a suitably-equipped receiver).

This means our LocataLite transmitters can be used “interchangeably” with GPS satellites.  Therefore, a GPS+Locata receiver can position using two satellites and one LocataLite, or just off GPS alone, or Locata transmitters alone. So, any place where you can use GPS we can augment it, making it work better outside, or allow you to now have GPS-like signals inside buildings - and in some other areas Locata can completely replace the satellites, in one seamless transition which an end-user would not even notice.

Let’s take the vehicle collision systems testing at the Vehicle Research Centre (VRC) as an example. They have an area outside on a test track where VRC analysts will be doing high speed collision type manoeuvres. However, they are also now building a huge 700 ft by 300 ft (215 x 95 metre) covered area where tests will be done under cover, and also simulate collision avoidance testing in environments such as parking garages. As soon as you’re under cover, the GPS doesn’t work reliably enough for serious testing.

So these superb research facilities need something that gives them unfailing, high-accuracy positioning in all environments they need to work in. Frankly, the car industry has begun to reach the limits of what can be done to save you in an accident. Up to 45 mph (75 km/hr) or so, you’ll be reasonably well protected. However, past this speed… well as the guys from the Vehicle Research Center stated “60+ mph - you have a head-on collision, and the only reason you walk away is because God was looking after you that day”.

The following short movie summarises the work carried out by the Vehicle Research Centre:

Work by the US Vehicle Research Center. Video courtesy of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

So the next generation of vehicle safety technology is aiming to avoid the accidents in the first place. There are a huge number of new technologies emerging, including:

  • Forward Collision Systems with automatic braking when an accident is inevitable
  • Lane Departure Technology that helps keep vehicles in the right lane
  • Blind-spot monitors that warn a driver about other vehicles in their blind spots
  • Adaptive Headlights that adjust lighting to vehicle speed and steering
  • Adaptive Cruise Control which automatically adjusts distances between vehicles.

To make such emerging technology better, vehicle test centers have to test each car to see which manufacturer is achieving the highest level of vehicle safety performance, compared to other manufacturers. To do this, they have to repeat the experiments in exactly the same way every time for every car, which is why you need to work with robotics (i.e. the system has to be roboticised to guarantee accurate, reliable, repeatable testing).

We are currently working at the VRC with Dr. Paul Perrone – he’s the founder of Perrone Robotics in the USA and also Chairman of a Society of Automated Engineering (SAE) Committee on Autonomous Vehicles. Dr. Perrone is currently building the robotic vehicles that: a) will be used for automating a vehicle-under-test at the VRC and b) producing an automated “target vehicle” which the vehicle-under-test will have to avoid! It should be very obvious that some of these anti-collision systems under test are going to fail in real-world settings.

Imagine, for example, two cars heading towards each other at 50 mph and “hoping” that the anti-collision system works. You can see why you do NOT want a human driver in this type of scenario. It has to be automated. There is no option. So, to automate testing, you need two things: firstly, superb robotics. Secondly, the robot vehicles need to know exactly where they are in any environment - and this is where Locata takes the lead. Our system covers the vehicle research centre (both outside and under cover), so that they can conduct their essential tests efficiently, and without fail.

Forward collision systems are emerging as essential systems. As a good example, if you have a car stopped in a lane in front of you and you’re moving towards this car at 60 mph, when you get with say a 100 meters range of the stationary car, a system cues the driver to think about hitting the brakes.

When the car gets within say 75 meters of the car in front, the system starts to slow the car down, and when the car gets to around 50 meters, the system independently forces the car to stop when it calculates a collision is imminent. The VRC site has already done industry-wide comparisons of damage and injuries in same-model cars that have a forward collision system to cars that do not have this technology. I’ll tell you the statistical information on the performance is compelling, and has already influenced my thinking about what will be required in the next car that I buy!

The VRC has shown that last year alone this new crash avoidance technology saved hundreds of lives in America alone - and this is technology is still an included option in only a fraction of cars on the road.

And there’s many more systems coming… there is also emergency brake lighting which can alert the cars behind you that there’s an accident ahead. There are blind spot warning systems where the driver’s steering wheel will vibrate, or the side of the driver’s seat will vibrate your thigh on the side where you cannot see a car in our blind spot. Amazing stuff!

Can you discuss some of the major limitations with current vehicle crash avoidance systems?

Many of the crash avoidance systems cannot yet accurately place the driver relative to everything around them. Many of the crash avoidance systems today are using radars and cameras. However, these will not always save a situation. Imagine three cars in a row. The first car is some way ahead, but has that has stopped in the lane. However, you are following the second car moving at 60 mph, which means that you (and your cars’ collision avoidance systems) can’t see the first car that has stopped in front.

If the driver in the second car, in front of you, does not have forward collision avoidance or is distracted does not hit the brakes in time, then there’s a chance all three cars will be involved in a crash. However, if your (third) car is alerted by knowing the position of all three cars relative to each other, then accurate positioning, in this instance, will probably help stop any of the cars being involved in an accident.

High-accuracy positioning such as Locata system allow your car to brake… even though your radar cannot see the first, stopped car because it’s tracking only the second, moving car ahead of you.

The IIHS will use Locata positioning to control automated testing of frontal collision avoidance and other safety systems.

Figure 1. The IIHS will use Locata positioning to control automated testing of frontal collision avoidance and other safety systems. Image courtesy of the IIHS.

Lane departure systems will undergo testing using cm-accurate LocataNet positioning.

Figure 2. Lane departure systems will undergo testing using cm-accurate LocataNet positioning. Image courtesy of IIHS.

High-accuracy Locata positioning will enable automated

Figure 3. High-accuracy Locata positioning will enable automated 'apples to apples' comparisons between each automaker’s backup collision technologies. Image courtesy of IIHS.

How does this new Locata positioning technology work?

The Locata positioning system can give an end-user cm-level positioning. Our system works in exactly the same way as GPS. For a Locata receiver to calculate its position it has to see three transmitters, so that the system can “triangulate”.

One critical requirement for GPS systems to work is that the signal has to leave the transmitter at exactly the same time – in other words, all the clocks have to be synchronized to each other. (Any reader who really wants to delve into GPS basics should consult Wikipedia or other such sites.) To make this happen in GPS, every satellite contains 3 or 4 atomic clocks; they are incredibly accurate clocks - they will only lose 1 second in 300,000 years!

Despite this incredible clock accuracy, these satellites still require an incredibly complex “GPS ground segment” to remain synchronized. It requires a large number of US military specialists running the system 24/7, to keep all of the atomic clocks in space synchronised to “a master atomic clock” on the ground. Think of this like a conductor with an orchestra.

Locata completely breaks this paradigm - the core of what Locata has invented is a new way of synchronising transmitters without the atomic clocks, without the ground segment, without any assistance whatsoever. When you turn our LocataLite transmitters on, our system goes through a new synchronisation process we call TimeLoc (it’s a play on time, location and lock).

TimeLoc synchronises our transmitters without an atomic clock, without any assistance whatsoever. I hope I can impress the engineers and physicists reading this now… the Locata network self-synchronizes to better than a nanosecond… that’s one-billionth of a second… without an atomic clock. And we believe we can get it even better than that in the future. This is – seriously – a completely new way of providing the same functionality as GPS, without costing around $40 billion dollars to get a system of 24+ satellites into space.

What are the main benefits of this positioning system? 

The synchronisation, timing and accuracy are simply amazing, and are the magic behind Locata technology. The most important outcome of our developments, however, is the fact that in the future you can make this signal available everywhere it’s required. As this is an easy integration into a GPS we need people to understand what we have created…

last week we were granted a trademark by the USPTO which hopefully will encapsulate what we have achieved. The trademark is “GPS 2.0” – it’s intended to convey that Locata is the “next generation”, an essential improvement of this type of technology. GPS 2.0 is the world’s first and only integration of satellite plus terrestrial GPS systems, a technology integration that will become one seamless positioning technology. This is truly a new development.

I know from our history that there is not one industry analyst, anywhere, who predicted the arrival of our technology. Frankly, it’s because nobody thought what we’ve done was possible. No analyst conceived the notion that a private company would develop a system that, in a local area, would provide a capability that had cost the US taxpayer $40 billion, and which you had to be a super-power to launch.

Under what conditions has this positioning system been tested to measure its precision; what are the test requirements?

Locata has progressed way beyond “testing”. We’re actually shipping product. However, we are definitely still in “the early days”… think of our systems toady as being similar to that of GPS in 1990. Currently, our devices are still large and expensive, just like the early days of GPS. However, after many years of development, you can have a GPS today as a $2 part in an iPhone®.

I believe Locata will follow exactly the same development path, and our devices are currently already going through the miniaturisation process which GPS went through previously. Today – because I describe Locata devices as “big, expensive and power-hungry devices”, then we have to work in the markets which will buy systems using this description of device. So we are shipping products into all of the classic markets that you would expect - like mining, construction, professional surveying and military. This has been the plan all along.

When we knew that we were coming out of our development phase, and started shipping in October 2012, we knew we had to come out of the chute with some really powerful technology partners. It was essential, frankly. Remember that pretty much everyone in the industry thought that we were crazy; that it was impossible to synchronize systems to billionths-of-a-second without atomic clocks… and by implication that “this technology will never work”. Therefore it was critical to have technology partners that would validate us beyond question. There was no point in Locata telling you that this technology will work… the world had to hear it from independent, capable end-users.

So, about four years ago, we teamed up with one of the most important GPS entity in the world – the US Air Force. We’ve been working with this organisation for the last four years with the 746th Test Squadron at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The 746th are the Centre of Expertise for GPS Development for the US military, and are beyond question some of the finest GPS engineers on earth. They were important in the development of the original GPS system, doing all of the original testing, even before satellites were launched into space.

Working with us, we have provided them with a new capability – highly accurate positioning in areas where GPS is being intentionally jammed. I suppose you could call that “the ultimate GPS hole!” Our technology obviously delivers what they need – on the 12th December 2012, they granted Locata a contract for delivery of a massive LocataNet. This first network they purchased will cover around 2,500 square miles (6,500 sq km) when the jam GPS. They are now able to continuing to provide their aircraft superbly accurate positioning, in the complete absence of GPS signals. Locata is the only technology that can do this.

Our performance in this application leaves many people incredulous.  The USAF have publicly reported that, for an aircraft travelling around 350 miles an hour (550 km/hr) at a distance of 35 miles (50 km), Locata is positioning that aircraft at better than 2.5 inches (6 cm) inches). That’s an accuracy of about the width of a credit card at 50 km! Even I find it amazing sometimes. The network for the USAF will probably be operational by the end of 2013...

Leica Geosystems is another important partner for our technology. They are, I believe, the world’s biggest professional GPS company, and based in Switzerland. Over the last four years (and during the time we were developing technology for the US Air Force) Leica has developed a system specifically for open-cut mining.

The first network that Leica has installed is for Newmont Mining at the Boddington Gold Mine in Western Australia (it’s one of the biggest gold mines in the world, producing around $3 billion worth of gold per annum). All modern mines are extremely high-tech, using many efficiency enhancing systems, such as the automation of their drill rigs, shovels, trucks etc. For most mines, automation works fine using GPS when working on the surface - but then they dig a big hole in the ground which creates a cone effect, cutting off visibility to a huge part of the sky.

Boddington’s mine is around 350 meters deep so today, for about 40% of the time, the machines in the pit cannot get enough GPS satellites to get a position fix – and there’s your GPS hole again! Leica has placed a LocataNet along the rim of the pit. When they turned this system on Locata “fills the hole”, across the mine’s 5 km radius, and we are positioning their drill rigs and their machines in the pit to better than 1.5 cm (½ inch). They now have a reliability in positioning that is approaching 99%, and the efficiency of their high-precision operations has simply skyrocketed. Boddington are very, very happy with the results they have obtained with their LocataNet.

I keep trying to remind everyone… there is nothing “global” about positioning in a mine, a mall, in a warehouse, or across a city. It’s just that, before Locata, the only way to achieve this function was with a global satellite system! Locata obviously breaks this paradigm, and that’s why many in the industry see Locata as a classic “disruptive entrant” to the $200 billion per annum GPS market.

What will determine expansion of this new positioning system in the future?

Every time we iterate to make the Locata devices smaller and cheaper, we multiply the number of applications and markets we can reach. As we progress in the same way that GPS evolved, you really have to imagine a world where their Locata receiver is only going to be a $2 additional cost in every phone, and our LocataLite transmitters are extremely inexpensive, allowing almost anyone to deploy what we call “Your Own GPS”.

How will this new network help automakers to make safety improvements to their products?

We know that, if you want to automate anything, it’s important for you to know where it is - reliably, and without fail. The true test I give people and app developers for positioning is this: turn on the GPS and close your eyes – now use only the input from the GPS to “navigate”. That is the ultimate test, because basically that’s what the machine has to do. You will learn very, very quickly why we spent so many years developing a technology that gives positions superbly well. A technology that can, and will, expand the fantastic start the world received from the original GPS, and take it into all the modern application areas that GPS was never designed for.

In the areas where the GPS won’t work reliably, Locata technology can supplement or replace the original gold standard, giving an accuracy, reliability and flexibility which satellite-only systems will never achieve. In the process we can create the next killer apps for consumer and professional apps in a huge number of “satellite-occluded” areas.

Will the performance of this new positioning system in the real world not be different to the way it works under controlled conditions and surely this leaves you with some challenges regarding improvements in the performance of this network?

Well, sure, Kal. Everything can be improved over time. I wish you’d been around in the very early days of GPS to see how difficult the technology was to use at that time, and the challenges it gave developers, manufacturers and users. However, now we take it for granted and even my mother can use the system! Locata will, I believe, follow the same path.

I’m not claiming we’re at the end of development. In fact, everything I’ve told you today shows that, clearly, we’re really just at the very beginning of Locata rollout. But please… have a look at what we’ve done. We’ve given completely new capabilities to one of the most important technologies of the 20th Century, improving it for the requirements now evident for 21st Century apps. Once you understand this… join the dots to see where our advance will lead next-generation applications.

I’ve told you we’re in our early days. Yes… we’ve had to do the initial testing of our systems in controlled conditions to develop it – as the US military did for GPS. But now we are shipping commercial product which is being used operationally, in challenging and demanding areas like mining and military system. In those uses, it’s clear the systems are completely out of our control, and operating superbly in the real world.. Locata is certainly working in “completely chaotic environments”. Have a look on our web site for the network that the NSW State Government has set up around Sydney Harbour, and called “The Sydney Satellites Project”.

The Sydney Satellites Network based around the Sydney Harbour.

Figure 4. The Sydney Satellites Network based around the Sydney Harbour. Map courtesy of Google® Earth.

There’s no way for us to control that environment! We have a transmitter that is positioned on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one outside the Opera House, all around that Farm Cove Bay and across the harbour… we have a network covering that entire area. The NSW Govt has independently reported that, without GPS, we are positioning boats in that area to within about 4 cm (1.5 inches) of “truth”. If the GPS system fails or is jammed, this demonstrates that you can easily and reliably fall back on the Locata technology. This is an incredibly valuable capability for national infrastructure, and one that Sydney is the first in the world to demonstrate publicly.

Bringing the conversation back to cars… how much ground does this positioning system cover in order for accurate evaluation of vehicle crash avoidance systems?

The following architectural maps display areas of the Vehicle Research Centre that will be used for the application of the Locata technology.

Phase 1: Outdoor test track using LocataNet.

Figure 5. Phase 1: Outdoor test track using LocataNet. Image courtesy of IIHS.

Phase 2: Covered test track using LocataNet.

Figure 6. Phase 2: Covered test track using LocataNet. Image courtesy of IIHS.

Where can we find further information on Locata?

Further information on our new technology can be found on our Locata webpage.

About Nunzio Gambale

Nunzio GambaleNunzio Gambale is a university dropout who proceeded to found and then run a number of extremely successful companies – each of them in what would appear, to the untrained eye, to be in totally unrelated fields. The threads that bound them all together, however, were (a) ground-breaking innovation in whatever was achieved, and (b) serious scepticism by the rest of the industry on the chance of success. He has now had many opportunities to enjoy the last laugh.

His current adventure started when he and fellow musician David Small founded Locata Corporation in 1995. The seeds were sown when these two geeks decided that GPS was seriously inadequate for positioning mobile devices of the future, and they decided to “fix it”. Little did they realize at the time that they had just set out on a 17-year journey of discovery.

By December 2000 the new technology had become an obsession, so Nunzio sold his music business to devote all his funds, energy and future to Locata. He has conceived the business strategies, raised money, written patents, negotiated the relationships, developed the marketing, hired the key people, set vision, and kept providing the drive when the hurdles seemed truly insurmountable. It’s all been worth the struggle – Locata has changed the future of positioning forever, and the industry knows it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.


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