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A Smart Suitcase to Help Blind People Navigate Airports


Equipped with new capabilities such as GPS tracking, Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to recharge other gadgets, smart luggage is the newest way travellers can stay connected on the move.

However, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have now developed a way of using smart luggage to help people with visual disabilities navigate airport terminals safely and independently.

Researchers have created a smart suitcase that can stop users from colliding with obstacles as well as a navigation app that helps users find their departure gate, making it easier for them to move around the airport.

Chieko Asakawa, IBM Distinguished Service Professor in CMU’s Robotics Institute and an IBM Fellow at IBM Research explains why devices such as this are needed:


“Despite recent efforts to improve accessibility, airport terminals remain challenging for people with visual impairments to navigate independently. Airport and airline personnel are available to help them get to departure gates, but they usually can’t explore and use the terminal amenities as sighted people can.”

Smart luggage for blind airport users

To tackle the problem of navigating crowds, researchers from the University of Tokyo and Waseda University developed a smart suitcase called BBeep. The rolling suitcase works by sounding alarms when users are headed for a collision with a pedestrian or object. The system has a camera for tracking pedestrians in the user’s path and can calculate when there is a potential for collision.

In tests at the airport, six blind participants each wheeled BBeep with one hand and used a white cane in the other as they maneuvered through crowded areas.

To address the difficulties of navigating an airport, CMU and Pittsburgh International Airport partnered to develop new systems and technologies for enhancing traveller experiences and airport operations.

An increasing number of airports have Bluetooth beacons, which can be used for indoor navigation, and the researchers used these beacons as the basis for the app.

NavCog, a smartphone-based app that employs Bluetooth beacons was deployed at Pittsburgh International Airport. The app, developed by CMU and IBM to help blind people navigate independently, previously has been deployed in university campuses and in shopping malls. The researchers modified it for the typical layout of the airport such as wide corridors and 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.
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