12 Apr 2013

Wheelchair sat nav – a move in the right direction?

A sat nav for wheelchair users shows them how to avoid obstacles like stairs and grass. No Go Britain, with the help of youth worker and wheelchair user Zara Todd, puts it to the test.

“London is a bit of a maze whether you know it or not. When you add in a wheelchair and trying to be a pedestrian, it can turn into mission impossible.”

No Go Britain has been tracking public transport journeys for disabled passengers for just over a year now. But the problems do not stop when people get off the bus or train. There are obstacles all over Britain’s towns and cities – from inaccessible crossings to a lack of dropped kerbs.

Zara Todd, quoted above, is a youth worker and wheelchair user from London. She says the city can be a nightmare to get around – and she realises it can be even worse outside the capital.

When you add in a wheelchair and trying to be a pedestrian, it can turn into mission impossible. Zara Todd

That is why the news of a new satellite navigation system for wheelchair users, which recalculates the route based on where there barriers such as stairs or grass, sounded interesting.

The system, called Inclusion, is a prototype at the moment and its makers, Navevo and Thales Alenia Space, claim it will be the world’s first barrier-free navigation system.

We sent Zara to central London to test it out (watch the video above to see her taking it for a ride along Whitehall).

“As an idea I think it’s a really good one,” said Zara. “On our experiment, the most useful thing it did was identify the stairs – because there was obviously no other indication anywhere on the signs that the stairs were there.

“So if I hadn’t been before or if you didn’t know London, you would do the sensible thing, you’d follow the sign, and then you’d get there [to the stairs] not knowing where you are or how to rectify your journey.”

By car or on foot

The sat nav system also works in cars and is designed to help disabled people and their carers find routes with accessible amenities on the way, such as toilets, as well as letting them know whether key attractions are accessible by using data from DisabledGo. It can also send alerts and provide tracking if carers or parents switch it on.

However, Zara said there were some more features she would like to see for pedestrian wheelchair users.

“One of the key things I’d like to see is where dropped kerbs are and where crossing points are,” she said.

“But I think that in the long-run that’s something that could be easily incorporated. I also think it would be great if you could add user content and get other people’s recommendations for routes to places, particularly if it is somewhere more difficult to get to. I can see that it has a lot of uses and I think if I could get it on my smartphone, I would be very tempted.”

Navevo Chief Executive Nick Caesari said a smartphone app was the next step, after launching the system on sat nav devices costing around £120 later this year.

He also welcomed the idea of user contributions, saying more data was key for improving the system.

“Finding the data is one of our biggest challenges,” he told Channel 4 News. “The community helping us find that data is really important. We’d like to get as much information in our systems as possible.”