Helping blind people navigate airports

1 min read

A smart suitcase and wayfinding smartphone app have been designed to make airport navigation more accessible for those with visual disabilities.

Although airport and airline personnel are available to help guide legally blind or visually impaired persons to departure gates, they usually can't explore and use the terminal amenities as sighted people can.

An increasing number of airports have been installing Bluetooth beacons, which can be used for indoor navigation, but often they are deployed to enhance services for sighted travellers, not to help blind people.

In a study at Pittsburgh International Airport, hundreds of Bluetooth beacons were installed throughout the facility. NavCog, the smartphone app, then employed these beacons. It relied on an annotated map of the terminal with the locations of restrooms, restaurants, gates, entrances and ticketing counters. Using this, the app could give audio directions to users.

The technology, developed by Carnegie Mellon University and IBM, had previously been deployed on campuses and shopping malls. The researchers modified it for use at the airport, where extremely wide corridors make users vulnerable to veering, and for use with moving walkways.

Ten legally blind people tested the app using an iPhone 8 with good results, traversing the terminal's large open spaces, escalators and moving walkways with few errors.

Another team, including researchers from the University of Tokyo and Waseda University in Tokyo, developed the smart suitcase, BBeep, to help with another problem encountered in airports – navigating through crowds. The assistive system has a camera for tracking pedestrians in the user's path and can calculate when there is a potential for collision.

BBeep is designed to sound an alarm when collisions are imminent – both warning the user and alerting people in the area. A series of beeps begins five seconds before collision. The frequency of the beeps increases at 2.5 seconds. When collision is imminent, BBeep issues a stop sound, prompting the blind user to halt immediately.