Researchers Create Radio Waves That ‘See’ Through Walls, Could Have Security Applications
University of Utah engineers showed that a wireless network of radio transmitters can track people moving behind solid walls. The system could help police, firefighters and others nab intruders, and rescue hostages, fire victims and elderly people who fall in their homes. It also might help retail marketing and border control.
"By showing the locations of people within a building during hostage situations, fires or other emergencies, radio tomography can help law enforcement and emergency responders to know where they should focus their attention,” Joey Wilson and Neal Patwari wrote in one of two new studies of the method.
Both researchers are in the university’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering -- Patwari as an assistant professor and Wilson as a doctoral student.
Their method uses radio tomographic imaging (RTI), which can “see,” locate and track moving people or objects in an area surrounded by inexpensive radio transceivers that send and receive signals. People don’t need to wear radio-transmitting ID tags.
One of the studies -- which outlines the method and tests it in an indoor atrium and a grassy area with trees -- is awaiting publication soon in IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing, a journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
The study involved placing a wireless network of 28 inexpensive radio transceivers -- called nodes -- around a square-shaped portion of the atrium and a similar part of the lawn. In the atrium, each side of the square was almost 14 feet long and had eight nodes spaced 2 feet apart. On the lawn, the square was about 21 feet on each side and nodes were 3 feet apart. The transceivers were placed on 4-foot-tall stands made of plastic pipe so they would make measurements at human torso level.
Radio signal strengths between all nodes were measured as a person walked in each area. Processed radio signal strength data were displayed on a computer screen, producing a bird’s-eye-view, blob-like image of the person.
A second study detailed a test of an improved method that allows “tracking through walls.” That study has been placed on arXiv.org, an online archive for preprints of scientific papers. The study details how variations in radio signal strength within a wireless network of 34 nodes allowed tracking of moving people behind a brick wall.
The method was tested around an addition to Patwari’s Salt Lake City home. Variations in radio waves were measured as Wilson walked around inside. The system successfully tracked Wilson’s location to within 3 feet.
The wireless system used in the experiments was not a Wi-Fi network like those that link home computers, printers and other devices. Patwari says the system is known as a Zigbee network -- the kind of network often used by wireless home thermostats and other home or factory automation.
Wilson demonstrated radio tomographic imaging during a mobile communication conference last year, and won the MobiCom 2008 Student Research Demo Competition. The researchers now have a patent pending on the method.
“I have aspirations to commercialize this,” said Wilson, who has founded a spinoff company named Xandem Technology LLC in Salt Lake City.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Radio tomographic imaging (RTI) is different and much less expensive than radar, in which radar or radio signals are bounced off targets and the returning echoes or reflections provide the target’s location and speed. RTI instead measures “shadows” in radio waves created when they pass through a moving person or object.
RTI measures radio signal strengths on numerous paths as the radio waves pass through a person or other target. In that sense, it is quite similar to medical CT (computerized tomographic) scanning, which uses X-rays to make pictures of the human body, and seismic imaging, in which waves from earthquakes or explosions are used to look for oil, minerals and rock structures underground. In each method, measurements of the radio waves, X-rays or seismic waves are made along many different paths through the target, and those measurements are used to construct a computer image.
In their indoor, outdoor and through-the-wall experiments, Wilson and Patwari obtained radio signal strength measurements from all the transceivers -- first when the rectangle was empty and then when a person walked through it. They developed math formulas and used them in a computer program to convert weaker or “attenuated” signals -- which occur when someone creates “shadows” by walking through the radio signals -- into a blob-like, bird’s-eye-view image of that person walking.
RTI has advantages. “RF [radio frequency] signals can travel through obstructions such as walls, trees and smoke, while optical and infrared imaging systems cannot,” the engineers wrote. “RF imaging will also work in the dark, where video cameras will fail.”
Even “where video cameras could work, privacy concerns may prevent their deployment,” Wilson and Patwari wrote. “An RTI system provides current images of the location of people and their movements, but cannot be used to identify a person.”
Would bombardment by radio waves pose a hazard? Wilson says the devices “transmit radio waves at powers 500 times less than a typical cell phone.”
“And you don’t hold it against your head,” Patwari said.
Patwari says the system still needs improvements, “but the plan is that when there is a hostage situation, for example, or some kind of event that makes it dangerous for police or firefighters to enter a building, then instead of entering the building first, they would throw dozens of these radios around the building and immediately they would be able to see a computer image showing where people are moving inside the building.”
“They are reusable and you can pick them up afterwards,” he said.
The technique cannot distinguish good guys from bad guys, but at least will tell emergency personnel where people are located, he adds.
Patwari says radio tomography probably can be improved to detect people in a burning building, but also would “see” moving flames. “You may be able to look at the image and say this is a spreading fire and these are people,” said Patwari.
Wilson believes radio imaging also could be used in “a smarter alarm system. … What if you put radios in your home [built into walls or plugged into outlets] and used tomography to locate people in your home. Not only would your security system be triggered by an intrusion, but you could track the intruder online or over your phone.”
Radio tomography even might be used to study where people spend time in stores.
“Does a certain marketing display get people to stop or does it not?” Wilson asks. “I’m thinking of retail stores or grocery stores. They spend a lot of money to determine, ‘Where should we put the cereal, where should we put the milk, where should we put the bread?’ If I can offer that information using radio tomographic imaging, it’s a big deal.”
Radio image tracking might help some elderly people live at home. “The elderly want to stay in their homes but don’t want a camera in their face all day,” Wilson said. “With radio tomographic imaging, you could track where they are in their home, did they get up at the right time, did they go to the medicine cabinet, have they not moved today?”
Wilson says a computer monitoring the radio images might detect an elderly person falling down the stairs based on the unusually fast movement.
He said radio tracking also might be a relatively inexpensive method of border security, and would work in dark and fog unlike cameras.
Another possible use: automatic control of lighting, heating and air conditioning in buildings, says Wilson. Radio tracking might even control sound systems so that the best sound is aimed where people are located, as well as noise cancellation systems which could be aimed automatically at noise sources, Patwari said.
Videos demonstrating use of radio tomographic imaging may be viewed at