Since the dawn of civilizations, humans have created maps, beginning with the earliest examples of cartography in Mesopotamia around 600 BC. Over time, advancements in cartography have led to extensive exploration and mapping of the world’s outer limits. Today, nearly all of the world’s surface, except for some areas in Antarctica and the deepest ocean parts, has been mapped. However, the interiors of buildings, where people spend most of their time, remain largely undocumented.
Mapping the insides of buildings serves more than just the human desire to record our surroundings; it has significant practical benefits. One major advantage is improved navigation. While smartphones have made finding our way easier outdoors, inside buildings, we often resort to asking for directions or consulting diagrams mounted on placards. This is particularly relevant as e-commerce and delivery services like Instacart and DoorDash bring more unfamiliar visitors into buildings than ever before.
Navigating buildings can be not only challenging but also dangerous in emergencies, posing a risk to safety. Because of this, first responders increasingly rely on indoor maps to efficiently manage emergency situations when they are available. Consequently, jurisdictions such as California have started mandating the mapping of all public school campuses for these critical reasons.
Digital maps also play a crucial role in enhancing property management efficiency. They can be invaluable tools for building and event staff, aiding in the orientation of new employees. Additionally, facilities managers can utilize these maps as a comprehensive record-keeping system for buildings. By linking vital details about mechanical equipment, such as specifications or operating manuals, to a digital map, it simplifies the research process and helps minimize mistakes.
All buildings are documented through mapping at some point in their construction process, with blueprints created during their initial construction phase. Modern buildings are increasingly being designed using 3D modeling platforms, such as Revit or SketchUp, making the mapping process even more detailed. However, for these detailed maps to be useful to a wider audience beyond architects and engineers, they need to be made accessible.
Currently, many buildings feature interactive digital signs and kiosks to aid navigation within. Yet, for maximum utility, these maps should be geospatially indexed and integrated into the mapping tools that people commonly use in their daily lives. Both Apple and Google offer options for property owners to claim their properties and upload floor plans to their mapping applications, enhancing accessibility and usefulness.
Adding floor plans to the public record is a good starting point, but has its shortcomings. “Even if you have good CAD or BIM data, sometimes it isn’t accurate,” said William Isley, CTO of Professional Services R&D at Esri, one of the largest geospatial mapping companies. “Things are not always built perfectly and layouts can change over time.” He suggests using a Lidar scanner to provide a nearly perfect digital representation of the actual physical space. The “point clouds” that Lidar scanners create can be easily converted into floor plans and can be used for 360° photos, interactive maps, and eventually AR goggles.
For indoor navigation to be as effortless as navigating the streets, your smartphone must provide precise directions, which hinges on accurately determining your location indoors. This is challenging because cellphone reception is often weak or entirely absent inside buildings, necessitating additional measures. According to Isley, buildings need to implement a location positioning system to achieve the necessary accuracy indoors. One method involves installing Bluetooth beacons within the premises, though Isley notes beacon deployment must be planned for good signal coverage. Organizations need to plan beacon deployments to have coverage and periodically check them for battery and that they haven’t fallen off the walls. An alternative approach, one that doesn’t require as much set up or maintenance, leverages the building’s existing WiFi network. While this method may be less precise, it is gaining sophistication with the introduction of new WiFi technologies and increased bandwidths.
Once accurate indoor positioning is achieved, mapping software must then be capable of navigating users through a building effectively. This task is especially challenging indoors due to the need to navigate between floors, requiring maps to include detailed information about the locations and accessibility of stairs and elevators. “For proper routing, a routable network is essential,” Isley explained. Such networks can be constructed from floor plans using software designed to map out every possible pathway a person might take, selecting the optimal route. However, algorithms may not always identify the most practical path that people would naturally follow. To address this, Isley recommends collaboration with GIS (Geographic Information System) professionals to ensure that the routing is efficient and can be easily updated to accommodate any future changes in the building layout.
Isley and his development team are incorporating machine learning and artificial intelligence into mapping tools to enable the automatic recognition of specific objects within buildings. They have already developed methods to identify common pieces of furniture and decipher room numbers from wall placards. Isley’s aim is for mapping tools to comprehend not only the layout of a space but also its contents. This advanced understanding could potentially lead to suggestions for improvements in navigation or more efficient use of space in the future.
The era of exploring and mapping the external world has concluded, with virtually all outdoor spaces now mapped. The focus has shifted to the interiors, aiming to achieve seamless navigation inside buildings akin to street-level guidance. This shift necessitates property owners and managers to become proficient in GIS. The advantages of indoor mapping are beginning to surpass the initial investment and effort required to implement such technology. In the future, our current lack of detailed knowledge about indoor spaces will seem as outdated and imprecise as the early maps we now view as relics of the past.