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A new positioning system invented by a VCU professor delivers where GPS fails

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Wei Cheng's system allows a group of devices to know where they are in relation to one another, and could have hundreds of practical applications, from finding a friend at a concert to locating a Lyft driver at the airport. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

A Virginia Commonwealth University computer science professor has developed a system that could change how we find friends in crowded places, Uber drivers in busy cities, and even family spread across a cruise ship.

Unlike GPS, which provides location data based on latitude and longitude, this new system — invented by Wei Cheng, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering — tells users where they are compared to others. 

The system allows a group of devices to know where they are in relation to one another, what direction each device is traveling, and how fast each is moving.

“Think of this technology like a swarm of bees,” Cheng said. “The bees all know where the other bees are, and where they’re going.”

Unlike GPS, which provides location data based on latitude and longitude, Cheng's system allows a group of devices to know what direction each device is traveling, and how fast each is moving. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)
Unlike GPS, which provides location data based on latitude and longitude, Cheng's system allows a group of devices to know what direction each device is traveling, and how fast each is moving. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

What’s different about Cheng’s approach is that positioning is greatly expedited and independent of GPS. For example, he said, it could be used where one cell phone needs to send its location to another cell phone.

“Normally, the message transmission can’t begin until both devices have been located in the same coordinate system,” Cheng said, “and this is difficult if one, or both, are on the move.”

This is important, he said, because if just one signal moves to a new location, it will trigger a relocalization, which means that the positioning message would not have even been sent out.

“My approach reduces localization time and sends out the message as soon as the first device acquires the location of the other, even if they’re moving,” he said.

Think of this technology like a swarm of bees The bees all know where the other bees are, and where they’re going.

Besides faster positioning, Cheng’s invention requires less energy consumption, enhances location privacy and improves location accuracy.

Brent Fagg, technology manager with VCU Innovation Gateway, said Cheng’s technology would be useful in a variety of industries, including vehicle networks such as trucking and taxi services, underwater networks, social networks and even the military.

“GPS isn’t always available, and military vehicles are often on the move,” Fagg said. “Which means the localization procedure is constantly being repeated. This new technology would mean better localization availability, fewer delays, and a reduction in location information leaks, all things that I’m sure are important to the military.”

The rapid localization platform could be incorporated into existing apps and smart devices — including cell phones and drones, he said. And because it isn’t reliant on GPS, it works where GPS devices cannot.

“Imagine being able to easily find a friend at a concert, or a Lyft driver at the airport, or even your Tinder date in a crowded bar,” Fagg said. “We’ve already come up with numerous ways to use this platform, and I doubt we’ve even scratched the surface.”

VCU Innovation Gateway manages intellectual property protection and facilitates commercialization of VCU inventions. For more information, visit the Innovation Gateway website or contact Brent Fagg at bfagg@vcu.edu or 804-827-2211.