Five disruptive innovations for travel that people with a disability imagined

The TRIPS project explored how to increase access to transport for people with a disability through innovation. In a series of recent workshops, we asked participants to dream and think about “big” ideas that would address many of the barriers that they faced. Some of their answers were fascinating, and whilst some verged upon science fiction, others were technically feasible based on emerging technologies entering the marketplace.

In one of the first concepts suggested, wheelchairs users imagined a “Levitating” wheelchair, awheelchair that could fly at low altitude and avoid traffic jams and obstacles. Imagineers indicated that this would mean there was no need for other means of transportation, as it could go anywhere, and provided them with complete autonomy. Whilst it seemed to be fantasy, the idea was based on the growth of drones and robotics, including flying delivery vehicles being trialled in some parts of the world. As a solution, it offered the opportunity to go anywhere and be flexible, easily avoiding obstacles.

Teams recognised that there were barriers to overcome, a need for some parts of the vehicle to act autonomously, providing safety and protection for travellers and those around them. It was suggested that finding ways to avoid adverse weather might make for a more comfortable journey.

Some of the features of this concept can be seen in a design for an autonomous car which could be rented for individual use. People with a range of disabilities envisaged an autonomous smart car without any driver, which could be rented for personal use. The technology could be tailored to an individual’s needs by establishing a user profile engaged when the user entered the vehicle through face recognition. Reducing dependency on drivers and shared transport appeared to offer a way to improve the independence and autonomy of persons with disabilities when travelling, especially where the interface to give instructions to the vehicle was fully accessible, making a massive difference to the time taken planning a journey.

The autonomous cars would include a user-friendly flexible booking system, adaptive features for multimedia usage and rolling information systems about the environment as we travelled. Making a journey bot functional and a pleasure

Those imaging this vehicle recognised how combinations of emerging technologies such as AI, Internet of Things, wearables could offer automated and intuitive guidance and transport wrapped up in universal design.

Autonomous robotics were also at the heart of a third idea for creating assistive buddy robots when travelling. A travel buddy robot was a concept of a robotic device that follows the traveller carrying luggage and could support you with information, providing support in case of the need to transfer from one position or vehicle to another. It felt both futuristic and feasible to our Imagineers with value to people with disabilities, and lone and older travellers with bags and feeling overwhelmed as they travelled. I added a level of confidence and security to the journey and ever a social aspect of not feeling isolated while travelling. Some shared how the concept might enable them to walk home freely after shopping or while starting/ending a long journey. They liked the idea of being able to book such a “buddy in advance on a pay as you go model allowing the robot to return to a charging station after use.

An entirely different approach was envisaged by one group that created a design concept for cities based on Mobile walkways across a city network. They developed a design for a city-wide network of rapid mobile walkways where people can automatically get on and off safely. By building a system for all travellers that had benefits for those with disabilities, there was a strong sense of inclusivity in this concept; it built upon existing technology found in airports and metro stations and felt friendly and straightforward to use. Added value was seen in the opportunity to reduce traffic congestion and associated pollution in cities, creating a healthier and more pleasant environment for all.

A final idea came from a group conscious of how travel could be impeded by small obstacles that significantly impacted. They imagined the creation of a LIDAR 3D reconstruction of the environment. Using sensors with wearable and portable personal technology, they envisioned a reconstruction of the environment using LIDAR. The obstacles could be identified, and the traveller warned and guided to avoid them. Participants liked this idea as it was wearable and not bulky, allowing those with a visual impairment to reconstruct the external environment precisely. The sense of confidence and safety was shared by many. This technology seemed to offer a means to navigate through the built environment to access transport safely, interchange between vehicle, and disembark readily and smoothly. Envisaging the technology, the team imagined smart glasses equipped with a LIDAR sensor with headphones for sending alerts. As they walked, the glasses could transmit what was detected through LIDAR to the phone, process the information, and send the alerts and advice to the headphones. Third-party developers could offer extra information with apps that interface with the glasses to suggest additional information based on what the user wanted and needed.

It has been said that the most significant barrier to inclusion is awareness, and perhaps with the growth of new technologies, we need to include imagination and creativity as a barrier to overcome. Our groups in the workshops demonstrated that given time and space, ideas will flow.

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