Some missions require U.S. operators to enter dangerous environments where they don’t know the layout and can’t access GPS. Fortunately, a small cube may instantly give them a 3D map of what lies ahead.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency charged Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory engineers with creating the Enhanced Mapping and Positioning System (EMAPS).

Weighing in at less than 4 pounds, the basic EMAPS is a cube about 6 inches across.

The portable mapping system is so compact and lightweight it can be carried in a backpack. As a warfighter walks, it instantly captures an area floor plan with a 270-degree laser scanner that measures both features particular to the environment and the distances to walls.

Using lasers and sensors, the tech also takes 360-degree photos and sensor readings.

Suppose you’ve boarded an enemy ship suspected to be carrying WMDs. GPS may not be available, but this little piece of tech will create an instant map to assist the team navigating the ship’s corridors with you.

What if you’ve been tasked to search for a terrorist hiding deep underground in a cave? GPS won’t be available, but this new system will automatically create annotated maps showing you every nook ahead.

How does it work?
EMAPS takes algorithms that were originally developed for robots and applies them to a system for humans.

Using LIDAR (light, detection and ranging sensors), it works while operators walk through an area carrying the tech in a backpack. The algorithms also importantly correlate threats like radiation levels and useful information such as how weak or strong a signal levels may be, with locations in its mapping.

"EMAPS virtually takes pictures with every step,” explained Johns Hopkins engineer Jason Stipes. “Using this technology, we can map almost every nook and cranny of targeted locations, capture that intelligence, and store it."

To georegister the data, EMAPS can be connected to a GPS receiver in some environments. The information is relayed and an onboard computer stores and processes data as the warfighter is mapping.

In 2010 the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Army Research Office funded a reconnoitering the University of California, Berkeley. This team developed a laser backpack for 3-D mapping of difficult interior terrain.

Greatly improving upon the very time-consuming laborious stop/start approach to collecting data, the UC Berkeley system also collects data while the operator is walking,

Smithsonian to ship engine rooms
Open areas and environments, like long hallways, have proven a challenge to map. The research team’s new algorithms mean they too can also be successfully captured.

From office buildings to complex ship engine rooms, corridors several miles long can now be mapped with their system.

EMAPS has collected more than 100 hours of GPS-denied environments. Their mapping feats include Army training areas, ships and underground storage facilities – and the infamously labyrinth-like Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

While the Smithsonian may not have the underground maze popularized in fiction, it does have tunnels connecting the buildings and even a very narrow one between the Castle and Museum of Natural History.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.