Qualcomm tackles indoor location with new generation of chips

Qualcomm (s qcom) hopes to make mobile phones just as adept at pinpointing your location within a building as they are at tracking your presence on city streets. The company announced on Thursday an ambitious plan to extend indoor positioning capabilities to all future handsets and Wi-Fi networks powered by its chips using a combination of GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular triangulation technologies as well as sensor data and cloud-based assistance servers.

Qualcomm already has quite a bit of history in the location field. A decade ago it launched the GPSOne program with the aim of putting assisted-GPS chips in almost every Qualcomm-powered phone in order to meet government emergency location requirements. Qualcomm estimates that its location engine has been integrated into more than 1 billion phones and devices.

GPSOne has since been renamed IZat to reflect that a lot more than GPS is used to determine location. Today Qualcomm chipsets use the Russian satellite constellation Glonass as well as GPS to get coordinates. They also augment that satellite data by measuring signal strength of nearby cellular towers, which network-based servers use to extrapolate location. Given the amount of investment Qualcomm has already made in the IZat system and the sophistication of today’s phones, adding indoor location capabilities is a relatively easy task, said Leslie Presutti, senior director of product management for Qualcomm’s Atheros division, under which IZat operates.

Like other indoor location providers, Qualcomm is making heavy use of Wi-Fi signals to determine location within a building, but it’s also utilizing cellular and GPS signals when available and further refining positioning data by using the gyroscope, accelerometer and compass sensors in the device. By tapping into all of those tools, Presutti said Qualcomm can determine location within three to five meters.

Qualcomm is also offering a network-based location option designed to work over access points that use its Atheros Wi-Fi chipsets, and it is partnering with Wi-Fi infrastructure giant Cisco Systems(s csco) to support its access points as well. Though not as accurate as the mobile-based approach, the network can deliver a reading within five to seven meters to phones that don’t have IZat-capable chipsets. It’s not ideal, but given the new indoor software is only just debuting on Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon processors, it will take some time before a critical mass of phones will be able to support the new technology, Presutti said.

Indoor location-based services are still in their infancy, but a growing number of small companies are vying with the big mapping providers like Google(s goog) to carve a niche in this potentially lucrative space.