Aug 18, 2019 | Updated: 08:03 AM EDT

New App Lends Airport Navigation Skills to the Visually Impaired

May 07, 2019 02:32 PM EDT

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Carnegie Mellon University researchers say a wayfinding smartphone app can help people with visual disabilities navigate airport terminals safely and independently. The navigation app provides turn-by-turn audio instructions to users on how to reach a departure gate-or a restroom or a restaurant.

"Despite recent efforts to improve accessibility, airport terminals remain challenging for people with visual impairments to navigate independently," said Chieko Asakawa, IBM Distinguished Service Professor in CMU's Robotics Institute and an IBM Fellow at IBM Research. 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.

"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 who participated in a focus group as part of the research. "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."

Kris Kitani, assistant research professor in the Robotics Institute and his colleagues have deployed NavCog-a smartphone-based app that employs Bluetooth beacons-at Pittsburgh International Airport. The app, developed by CMU and IBM to help blind people navigate independently, has previously been deployed on campuses and in shopping malls. They modified it for use at the airport, where extremely wide corridors make users vulnerable to veering, and for use with moving walkways. As part of the project, the airport installed hundreds of Bluetooth beacons throughout the facility.

"Part of our commitment to the public includes making sure our airport works for everyone, particularly as we modernize our facility for the future," said Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis. "We're proud to partner with such great researchers through Carnegie Mellon University. Having that world-class ingenuity reflected at our airport is emblematic of Pittsburgh's transformation."

The app gives audio directions to users. It relies on a map of the terminal that has been annotated with the locations of restrooms, restaurants, gates, entrances and ticketing counters. 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. Most users were able to reach the ticketing counter in three minutes, traverse the terminal in about six minutes, go from the gate to a restroom in a minute and go from the gate to a restaurant in about four minutes.

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