NextNav has figured out how to use barometric pressure sensors and other networks to determine what floor of a building a person is on when they’re calling from a skyscraper or other multi-floor building. And it does so using software that can work with sensors that have been in smartphones for years.
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted five-to-zero in favor of adding a requirement that smartphones mark the location within three meters of altitude for all 911 calls. That was exactly what NextNav was hoping for, as the company provides a solution that can help smartphone makers meet that mandate.
FCC commissioner Brendan Carr said in a hearing on Thursday that technology can help improve the response for 911, while Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that 911 should simply work for all people all of the time, and that means requiring that devices provide floor-level accuracy without fail. The FCC mandate could go into effect by April 2021.
All of this is music to the ears of the folks at Sunnyvale, California-based NextNav, which raised $120 million in January and, after 13 years of development, is finally ready to bring the technology into the market.
“We’ve been developing this technology in the background, and there are a lot of technical barriers and regulatory barriers that we had to break through,” NextNav head of marketing Ben Ball said in an interview with VentureBeat.
How it works
Global positioning system (GPS) navigation has been possible thanks to satellite networks since the 1990s, but that only allowed people to figure out where they are in a two-dimensional grid. The third dimension, or the “missing Z-axis,” is where that person is vertically.
GPS is vulnerable in some ways because people truly don’t know exactly where some objects are, said Dan Hight, vice president and general manager of data partnerships at NextNav, in an interview with VentureBeat. GPS was never designed to track people or small objects like delivery packages.
“Satellites can’t see it. And that presents a very large challenge for public safety,” Hight said. “Fire departments need to know where people are inside tall buildings. As you can imagine, when you need medical attention, or you’re in an emergency situation, every second counts, and so finding people within large urban areas and very large buildings is becoming an increasingly large problem.”
In places such as Las Vegas, navigation programs can use indoor Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals to track how near a person is to a given wireless router, and that allows the apps to track where someone is inside a casino. But not all buildings have Wi-Fi signals, and that doesn’t help in fixing a vertical location.
NextNav has built a network of wireless long-range beacons that are kilometers apart. Dubbed Metropolitan Beacon Systems, or MBS, the beacons work with the cellular system to determine where someone is in a three-dimensional space. It does not require its beacons to be inside buildings. NextNav also taps barometer sensors that are built into smartphones. These detect barometric pressure, which changes with altitude, and it can help fix where a person is located.
As you go up an elevator, the barometric pressure goes down. A storm could affect that barometric pressure, but NextNav is looking at minute changes in pressure, together with the calibration network that it has set up with the beacons. The company says it can get vertical accuracy within one to two meters.
The system has gone through a lot of third-party testing, Hight said. The MBS is set up in a few areas now, like the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.
NextNav has been working on the tech for a while, and it provides vertical information to NASA in a program that allows the agency to keep track of drone locations.
In suburban areas, height is rarely an issue. But in big cities and other urban areas, having the floor location can be extremely important, and roughly 84% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas where multistory buildings make up most of the landscape. In places like midtown Manhattan, Chicago’s Loop, or San Francisco’s Financial District, there aren’t a whole lot of open, public spaces. Inside shopping malls, it isn’t easy to find someone, as satellite signals don’t penetrate buildings.
Beyond providing precise location coordinates for 911 calls, NextNav is working on other applications. It could, for instance, be used in augmented reality games, where a treasure is hidden on the top floor of a building. Urban areas are a big opportunity for AR games, and that translates to a big business opportunity. Manhattan alone has 568 million square feet of office space that is currently inaccessible for AR applications simply because current geolocation services don’t account for the Z-axis.
Multistory buildings offer a golden opportunity as gaming venues for public or private events. Think about a team-building exercise where participants find clues on different floors of a skyscraper. The escape room industry, which plateaued in 2019, could expand into entire “escape buildings” — a new market just waiting to be exploited, the company said.
“We’re looking into what consumers can do with it, what they can do with gaming, what we can do with advertising,” said Hight.
Niantic (the creator of Pokémon Go), Facebook, and others have already recognized the potential of 3D AR, investing in the space through a series of acquisitions. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others are building out the back-end technology needed to bring AR worlds to life.
“We’ve been chipping away at this for a very long time,” Ball said. “I think in the last two years or so, we’ve really started to gain a lot of momentum in the space, which is evidenced by a lot of funding rounds.”