Improving work-zone safety for visually impaired pedestrians

pedestriansNavigating sidewalks and intersections affected by road construction can be challenging for all pedestrians, but it’s especially difficult for those who are blind or visually impaired.

To help these pedestrians find their way safely, U of M researchers have developed a smartphone app that can detect upcoming work zones and provide routing instructions. The project, funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), was led by senior systems engineer Chen-Fu Liao at the U’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory.

The app builds on a previously developed smartphone-based system that provides visually impaired pedestrians with geometric and signal timing information at signalized intersections.

As part of their work developing the new work-zone component, the researchers surveyed a group of visually impaired pedestrians. The goal was to better understand their challenges and the information that would be most helpful to them when approaching a work zone. Results provided the researchers with guidelines as they determined what the app would communicate to users.

The app uses Bluetooth beacons—which can be attached to signs, posts, or construction barriers in a work zone—that communicate with the GPS receiver on a user’s smartphone. When a beacon is detected, the phone vibrates and provides an audio message. The message includes the pedestrian’s current location, the location of the work zone, and suggested routing instructions. The user can tap the smartphone to have the message repeated.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to work with MnDOT and local cities to access real-time traffic signal information and work-zone construction information on a larger scale. Prior to the release of the app, additional testing will also be conducted.

In addition, the research team has received funding from the Roadway Safety Institute (RSI) to expand the project by creating a “condition aware” infrastructure that can be integrated with the smartphone app. The goal is a system that can self-monitor and broadcast up-to-date information to visually impaired pedestrians in more locations, even when GPS signals are unavailable.

“This mapping methodology will ensure that correct audio information is provided to app users at the right location,” Liao says. “It could be used anywhere—at traffic intersections, skyways, or underground tunnels—to provide directions for travelers.”

The team expects the app to be available to the public following the completion of the RSI-funded project.

Read the full article in the September issue of Catalyst.

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Posted in Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), Pedestrian, Safety, Technology, Transportation research, Urban transportation

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