First Look

Indoor Atlas: Smartphones can navigate inside buildings using magnetic fields

What do you do when you want an app to know where it is indoors where there's no GPS? Indoor Atlas has a clever answer

chartres roof space the charpente de fer
Credit: Wikipedia

Navigating outdoors is easy with GPS and when augmented augmented by WiFi the the accuracy and availability of geolocation increase significantly … until you step inside a building.

Once you’re inside and there’s no GPS signal WiFi geolocation might give you a rough fix though usually you’re effectively “off the grid.” But knowing where you are inside a structure can be crucial in large factories or office buildings. It may also be crucial for others to be able to locate you.

If you want to build an app that’s capable for geolocation within a building you should take a look at Indoor Atlas, an SDK for iOS and Android, which uses magnetometer data from your smartphone and cloud-based mapping data to locate you to within 2 meters or less in real time.

The idea behind Indoor Atlas is that buildings have predictable magnetic fields caused by structural steel, wiring, machinery, ductwork, etc., and by recording the variations and filtering out magnetic noise, you can characterize an entire building and use that data to figure out where the device might be within that environment. WiFi and Bluetooth data can also be used to improve accuracy.

To create a map you sign up with Indoor Atlas then register the target venue and upload a floor plan. You then use the IndoorAtlas mobile app (available for iOS and Android) to create your magnetic mapping data. You traverse your map telling the app where you are going to walk and the app measures the magnetic fields. When complete, the magnetic mapping data is uploaded to Indoor Atlas’ cloud. The data is crunched after which, using your apps enabled by the Indoor Atlas API, you can display, notify, record, act upon, or do whatever you need to do with the location information.

app screenshot Indoor Atlas

An Indoor Atlas enabled map

This is a brilliant idea and the company has raised a $10 million investment from the top Chinese search company, Baidu, which will be the only licensee of Indoor Atlas’ technology in China.

Signing up as a developer is free and the free use plan allows for an unlimited number of venues with up to 1,000 unique users per account per month. The Premium plan has a 30-day free trial after which pricing starts at $99 per venue per month for unlimited users. Flat rate pricing is also available on application.

There’s huge potential for using Indoor Atlas to create apps that guide and or locate people and equipment in malls, individual shops, museums, offices, and factories. The only technology that might weaken the case for Indoor Atlas’ technology is Beacons, the low-cost Bluetooth LE-based transponders popularized by Apple that can provide similar facilities albeit with an infrastructure overhead.

If you’re looking to develop a custom indoor geolocation system this is an outstanding tool kit to consider.

What are your thoughts on indoor navigation? How should this service integrate with the enterprise?

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