Wearable Cartography – Portable Mapping System

Caitlin Dempsey


Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed a portal mapping system that transmits remotely a digital map of the wearer’s environment.  The concept behind the technology is known as simultaneous localization and mapping or SLAM and previously had only been applied to mapping by robots. The device was conceived as a way to help first responders and emergency management personnel assess and understand the spatial component of an emergency situation.  By enabling emergency responders the ability to generate real-time maps as they explore a location, the remote transmission of the spatial layout of a building can help external commanders the ability to better manage emergency situations.

The device is outfitted with several technological sensors to help map the physical environment.  A GPS unit tracks the physical location of the wearer.  The LiDAR rangefinder measures the return of light pulses in a 270° arc as part of the Automatic Mapping System.  Gyroscopes on the device measure the tilt of the rangefinder to adjust the map readings.  The accelerometers measure the speed of the person wearing the device.  An barometer measures changes in air pressure which is used to adjust for when a firefighter or law enforcement person changes floors. Lastly, the device contains a camera that captures a comparative image of the environment.  Software captures 200 types of visual features from imagery involving patterns, topography, and three dimensional entities.  The information extracted from the imagery is compared against the sensor data to ensure the digital map is correct.

The prototype also comes with a button the user can depress to mark areas of interest.  Researchers anticipate that later versions of the device will allow for text and voice annotations for areas of interest.

The device is worn on the chest and is about the size of an iPad with a backpack carrying the additional components.

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Maurice Fallon, researcher from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, wears the portable mapping device.
Maurice Fallon, researcher from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, wears the portable mapping device.

The researchers tested the device by having a graduate student wandered the halls of a building on MIT’s campus while they sat in a nearby conference room.  A video demonstrating the device’s real-time mapping:

YouTube video


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.