Magazine Article | April 27, 2012

The Role Of Indoor Mapping In Field Service

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Pedro Pereira, Field Technologies magazine

GPS is readily used in enterprise mobility today — is indoor mapping next?

GPS, geo-positioning, and mapping applications have become increasingly common in recent years for field service workers. Now, the benefits of knowing where you are at all times and determining the best routes to your destination are being extended into building interiors with indoor mapping.

Unlike GPS, which relies on satellite transmissions, indoor mapping uses Wi-Fi signals because satellite signals typically cannot penetrate buildings. As the technology evolves, finding a person, asset, or room in a building may become as easy as consulting a Wi-Fi-connected handheld device equipped with 2D or 3D graphics to guide you to the right place.

Indoor mapping technology is likely to find a host of practical uses in large facilities such as warehouses and factories, hospitals, hotels, shopping malls, sports arenas, office buildings, and apartment complexes — in other words, any place where it's easy to get lost. "Using this technology, with a wireless phone, turn-byturn guidance can be delivered similar to your in-vehicle GPS," says Louis Nastro, director of land products at mobile mapping vendor Applanix, a Trimble company.

The technology's appeal crosses a range of sectors, from architecture and engineering to first responders to field service workers. All of them can benefit from having or creating electronic representations of physical spaces. For firefighters, police officers, and other emergency workers, indoor mapping has safety and expediency implications. For their part, architects could leverage the technology to build models when redesigning a space to determine the project's impact on operations.

When it comes to field workers, the potential benefits are many. "Those who visit multiple complex buildings can have very detailed maps to facilitate day-to-day activities requiring navigating complex spaces," says Nastro.

Delivery drivers, couriers, and utility technicians, for instance, would be able to more quickly find a customer. "Whether in a large apartment complex or huge office building, technicians on service calls often spend way too much time trying to find a customer," says Darren Weiss, a blog contributor to The SmartVan, a field services resource organization. "Time and money are lost, frustrations mount, and service quality drops. Wielding the ability to pinpoint a customer's exact location within a building could be a very useful feature." Ankit Agarwal, CEO of indoor mapping vendor Micello, says handheld-equipped field service organizations already have started finding some practical uses for indoor mapping technology.

The Challenges Of Indoor Mapping
While field service organizations have begun employing indoor mapping applications, the technology remains in the early stages. Mapping the outdoors and developing GPS applications was a massive endeavor. Before indoor mapping use can become as widespread among field workers as GPS, application developers have to tackle a number of challenges. They include the scalability and capacity to map thousands of venues around the world, setting up the needed infrastructure, and getting buy-in from owners and — in public facilities — governments.

Other considerations come into play, including building age and variety, points out John Young, business lead for federal real property and facility management at geographic information systems vendor Esri. It's one thing to map out new buildings, where you can develop the necessary data during construction. When it comes to older buildings, mapping has to be done from scratch.

Other challenges have to do with data variety and reliability. "Each building map is done by a different contractor or with a different software package with differing types of data — there is no standardization," Young says. "Another constraint is navigating around the building. Sometimes you can't even get cell service indoors, never mind triangulating the inside of a building."

Such issues have to be tackled effectively before field service and emergency workers can rely on indoor mapping. "Field service organizations should do their homework and assess their data needs enterprisewide and select a solution with outputs compatible to what they are currently using," says Nastro.

Picking An Indoor Mapping Application
Deciding whether an organization needs indoor mapping for its field workers and figuring out how to use it are among the first questions to tackle. Weiss advises making a determination of whether the technology is worth the investment. "There are some free options and some paid ones," he says. "In any scenario, an Internet-connected device, such as a tablet, smartphone, or laptop, is necessary. If your technicians don't already have Internet-connected devices, this becomes an investment, even with a free mapping tool like Google's on Android."

More importantly, however, an organization must decide whether it even needs the technology, Weiss says. "If you're a smaller firm with limited clientele in familiar locations, odds are you don't really need to jump into indoor mapping just yet." And finally, large organizations that identify clear benefits from indoor mapping need to make some decisions before selecting a solution. Agarwal recommends taking speed of delivery and quality into consideration and finding out how often the application's vendor updates the solution and adds new venues.