Smart Tech: Phones, Drones, and Interior Mapping

Exterior mapping – like GPS maps – is part of daily life, but in the coming decades prepare to have your private, interior spaces mapped to assist with future technologies.

Avideh Zakhor: I live in Berkeley and I’ve been living there for 30 years and I know all the streets and how to get to my home and my work. But I still use Google Maps because at any point in time you don’t know the amount of traffic between where you are and where you want to go, and which one of the many routes available to you has an accident or a slowdown or too many other people are going on. The value of exterior mapping is I think by now pretty well understood by the public.

Interiors you can argue less about people getting lost and traffic and stuff like that. But imagine package delivery like Amazon going to deliver our packages through drones all the way to the exterior of our building. But then you wanted the last mile of delivering those same things into different offices or apartments inside a building, and that would also require mapping. So the idea is to make the interior mapping be seamlessly integrated with exterior mapping so that you can have true end-to-end connectivity between different points. 

All of us, through this amazing device we carry with ourselves, cell phones, are continuously collecting signals and images and data about our surrounding. Whether or not we know it and whether or not we like it we’re doing that unconsciously all the time. Through crowdsourcing, so if you get the aggregate of all the people who are going into all these indoor spaces you have the potential to map every indoor space. The typical cell phone has over 40 sensors. There’s accelerometers, gyroscopes, barometers, thermometers, Wi-Fi signal, Bluetooth, all kinds of RF signal gathering capability. I hate to say it but a lot of it are being tracked because to use a lot of the applications on your phone you allowed the company that sold you the phone to collect that information. And that’s almost synonymous with mapping. So those could be used in order to map the interiors. 

These very same people whose crowdsourced data you used to map, you can use that same information to locate people. When there is an emergency –  either an earthquake, fire or anything like that the first responders will have a lot easier time knowing where people are and knowing how to rescue people. And just having more information is always useful.

The other positive thing in terms of knowing where you are iand how many people are where and knowing the maps is this idea of smart buildings. You can control the many, many sensors and actuators that are inside the building to your liking. So suppose that I like the temperature in my office to be no warmer than 64. Just because there’s a map and because they know where I am, that I’m not in my office, there’s not going to be any cold HVAC air being pumped into it. That saves energy. And when a day that I’m not working in my office but working in the conference room across the hall from my office the same temperature preferences can be applied to that room. Localizing people enables them to be more comfortable and more in tune with the environment that they’re in. And it could result in potential energy savings inside buildings if that information is readily available.


 

Avideh Zakor is a

Hertz Foundation Fellow

and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. From helping emergency rescue teams navigate in times of crisis, says Zakhor, to boosting our comfort with Smart Homes, the future of domestic and office tech will be built on the data blueprints of our spaces. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, she pursued a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.


The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

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Image source: David Williams/NASA
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In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

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  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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