Collision-Detecting Suitcase Makes Airport Navigation Easier for the Visually Impaired
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on May 15, 2019 |

For many people, navigating an airport is often like trying get through an obstacle course. For people with visual impairments, it can be an overwhelming challenge. Researchers across the globe are developing new ways to enhance safety and accessibility, including a wayfinding app from Carnegie Mellon University and a smart suitcase from the University of Tokyo and Waseda University in Tokyo.

CMU researchers teamed with IBM and Pittsburgh International Airport to develop technologies that would allow independent navigation in airports instead of relying on airline personnel.

“When you get a five- or six-hour layover and you need to get something to eat or use the restrooms, that is a major hassle,” said one legally blind traveler and focus group participant. “It would be lovely to be able to get up and move around and do things that you need to do and maybe want to do.”

Chieko Asakawa, IBM Distinguished Service Professor in CMU's Robotics Institute and an IBM Fellow at IBM Research, has been legally blind since 14. She helped develop NavCog, a voice-controlled smartphone app that helps blind people navigate indoor locations with Bluetooth beacons. (Image courtesy of IBM.)
Chieko Asakawa, IBM Distinguished Service Professor in CMU's Robotics Institute and an IBM Fellow at IBM Research, has been legally blind since 14. She helped develop NavCog, a voice-controlled smartphone app that helps blind people navigate indoor locations with Bluetooth beacons. (Image courtesy of IBM.)

Although more airports are deploying Bluetooth beacons to assist travelers, they often still only assist sighted people. Kris Kitani, assistant research professor in the CMU Robotics Institute, and his colleagues worked with IBM to develop NavCog in 2015. Aimed to help people on campuses and in shopping malls, the app provides audio directions to users.

Now, the team has partnered with PIT to bring this to the airline industry. After modifying the app to include wide corridors, the airport installed beacons throughout the facility. The app works off a map of the terminal that includes gates, ticket counters and amenities.

The app was tested by a focus group of 10 legally blind people with positive results. Even while navigating open spaces, escalators and moving walkways, most encountered few errors and were able to reach the ticket counter in three minutes, find a restroom in one minute and walk from a gate to a restaurant in about four minutes.

For people traversing other airports without beacons, a smart suitcase was designed to help people navigate crowds. BBeep may look like luggage, but it has a camera attached to an assistive system to help clear paths, monitor floor texture and determine potential collisions.

As the suitcase rolls along with its owner, its sensing system will alert the user and others in an area of a potential collision. It begins beeping five seconds prior to a collision and increases in frequency at 2.5 seconds. If there is an imminent danger of collision, it creates a stop sound for the user.


Six participants tested BBeep in an airport. Wheeling the suitcase in one hand and a cane in the other, they were asked to maneuver five similar routes using three system modes: no warning, user-only warnings and speaker warnings. A researcher was on hand to monitor safety and noted that the latter mode was the most effective in both clearing a path and reducing collisions risk.

Interested in more innovations for the visually impaired? Check out See3D Helps the Visually Impaired “See” Through 3D-Printed Models and New Device Helps Visually Impaired Students to “See” What’s on the Screen.


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