A team from Oxford University has modified technology that was originally developed to track badgers underground so that it can be used to locate people in an emergency situations, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

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WhileGPSis good for tracking objects on the surface, once an object goes underground it makes it much harder to find. In the wake of the July 7th (2005) London underground attacks, UK emergency services have been looking for a way to be able to find people who may be trapped underground or under debris and this ‘badger-tracking system’ may provide the answer.

The technology is the brainchild of Andrew Markham and Niki Trigoni from Oxford University’s Department of Computer Science. In 2009, they joined a project to study badgers in Oxford’s Wytham Woods, but found that they couldn’t track the animals whenever they went underground.

To get around this problem, the duo developed a technology based on generating very low-frequency fields that are capable of penetrating obstacles, enabling positioning and communication even through thick layers of rock, soil, and concrete. Of course, there is the problem that low-frequency fields can vanish very quickly, but the team hopes to overcome this with clever signal-processing algorithms.

“Most technologies are only checking the magnitude of the signal – the signal strength from each transmitter – to work out distance,” Andrew Markham said in an interview to Wired.co.uk. “In contrast the new technology measures ‘vectors, which give you the magnitude and direction… Our technology can work out your position in three dimensions from a single transmitter.”

Of course the team also realizes the real-world benefits apart from tracking badgers. Working with Isis Innovation, they have been adapting the technology for a multitude of purposes in addition to search and rescue, including location-based advertising and tracking people and equipment in modern mines.

Once finalized, the goal will be to incorporate the new technology into smart mobile devices so people can be found in an emergency wherever they are.

+ Oxford University / Isis Innovation

Images: simminch, ruth and johnny, london uk