In an emergency, a mobile phone can be the device that saves you, even if you aren’t able to make a call. A drone developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne can pinpoint the location of a mobile phone by picking up its Wi-Fi signal.
The drone, which was first reported by Robohub, can pick out the location of an individual phone within 30 feet. It calculates location by picking up the signal from several spots, allowing it to triangulate the origin.
The system could be especially useful after avalanches and earthquakes, when people might be buried under many feet of snow or rubble. The drone tracks how strong a signal is; a weaker signal can indicate that a person is trapped deeper down, giving rescue crews a 3D picture of where to search.
This is not the first time phones have been used to pinpoint people. In 2006, an Oregon family was found based on text messages. Drones are also already being used in search operations. They can also track heat signatures, helping rescue crews quickly spot a warm human being among an expanse of trees or snow. Judges ruled earlier this week that a Texas search nonprofit could continue using drones after objections from the FAA.
The drone could also be used to provide Wi-Fi if infrastructure was knocked out by a disaster, masters student Jonathan Cheseaux said in a release. Companies like Facebook and Google are looking into using drones and satellites to provide internet connectivity to remote corners of the world where installing internet cables is especially difficult. The same types of systems would be useful in disaster situations to get large areas back online quickly.
The EPFL team noted its work underscores confidentiality issues with drones as its aircraft can pull phones’ Wi-Fi network names and MAC addresses. But it also only works in a search and rescue situation if a phone’s Wi-Fi connections are unprotected.
So would you rather be anonymous or rescuable?