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Construction Technology to Watch: Indoor Positioning Systems

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

IPS tech can include RFID, beacons or Wi-Fi to map the inside of a building.

  • An indoor positioning system, or IPS, is a tracking system for an indoor building. An IPS can track people or objects.
  • Different technologies are employed to create an IPS. Options include RFID, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth beacons and robotics. Accuracy needs and budget decides on the best choice for your business.
  • Benefits of an IPS include improved safety, workflow visibility, detailed layouts and quality assurance.

What is an indoor positioning system?

The easiest way to describe an indoor positioning system (IPS) is to think of the technology as an indoor GPS. The technology tracks individuals or objects while inside a contained building. An IPS uses certain technology to track individuals while indoors and have become popular in businesses such as hospitals, shopping malls, nursing homes and airports. An IPS can either track through client-based positioning or server-based positioning. With client-based positioning, an IPS will locate the person or object through the end-user device. Server-based positioning finds locations through the servers.

The most common ways that IPS works is through the use of technologies that include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and smartphone sensors. Newer technologies for IPS include ultra wideband and infrared systems. Another emerging technology associated with IPS is SLAM or Simultaneous Location and Mapping. SLAM relies on robotics for creating a virtual map of a space. Robots navigate an environment to build a real-time map of a building or landmark.  

The technologies tag the person or object and then feed the location into a software program. There is not a single set way to build an IPS. Each organization can choose custom solutions based on their specific needs. The type of accuracy needed by the organization also dictates what type of product is best. For instance, according to Geospatial World, Wi-Fi IPS systems have an accuracy rate of 5 to 15 meters. Your choice of an IPS will depend on the level of accuracy you need as well as your budget. Some systems are very expensive, while others, like Bluetooth beacons or RFID types, are relatively low-cost.

The idea of indoor positioning systems, the ability to locate objects and people inside a building, or quickly gather data points in a simple walk-through, offers a transformational impact on the construction industry. It also speaks to a change in mindset among construction industry workers: There's a demand for instant information and the ability to gather data points effortlessly.

"Typically, when you think of indoor positioning systems, most commonly you're referring to scanning or indoor mapping," said Todd Ellsworth, director of professional services for BuildingPoint Midwest and Gulf Coast, an authorized distribution partner for Trimble Buildings' portfolio.

How it works

Indoor positioning pulls from various technologies. Some are new, while others have been available for decades. Some technologies rely on RFID technology; others leverage beacons and Wi-Fi. Many indoor mapping or scanning services use point clouds to gather extremely precise data points. Ellsworth noted that some emerging technology related to indoor positioning can create accurate data points just from an image, which is called photogrammetry.

As with many new technologies, there are nuances with indoor positioning as you look at each provider. One challenge is that not all companies that provide positioning services think of themselves as "indoor positioning" providers explicitly. It's not a universal term in the construction industry.

For example, Redpoint Positioning speaks of its "indoor GPS solution" and leverages a real-time location system, or RTLS technology. Redpoint works indoors and outdoors, and touts its ability to fold into building information modeling with "the ability to accurately and dynamically locate people and assets in real time, from early job site operations through to post-construction services for building owners" on its website.

Use cases for indoor positioning

As is the case for many technologies, it's best to think in terms of use cases and function – what it is that you wish to accomplish.

"For example, I may want to create an indoor map of my facilities and confirm that my calculations for my office are correct," Ellsworth said. "It's a quality assurance method – a very fast way to gather data."

Other uses include the following:

  • Tracking equipment. Cut the time it takes to find equipment on a large, complex job site. Track deliveries and see equipment and supplies as they move around the job site.

  • Quality assurance. Confirm the accuracy of measurements or conditions of a space. Discover issues as they arise.

  • Layout. Remove manual measurements and quickly understand the layout of an inner room – no tape measure required.

  • Locate workers. Locating workers in the field is not just a benefit for management – it also boosts safety and reduces liability for construction firms.

  • Visibility into a workflow. Gain a visual map of what your project looks like at any moment, including the progress or location of workers and equipment, and see the process in action.

Many of these technologies provide additional features to enhance the usability of the information you gather. For example, some allow you to add tags or comments to bring the data to life.

As indoor positioning continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see which providers partner and integrate with other platforms as well as how it changes the overall flow of the worksite.

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