Bat inspired technology gives freedom to blind and partially sighted people

Academics: Professor B. Hoyle, Dr D. Waters and Professor D. Withington, Faculties of Engineering and Biological Sciences

The ground-breaking Ultracane is helping people with sight loss to navigate around pavements and buildings, and is giving users their independence back. Based on innovative technology developed at the University of Leeds, the cane helps users ‘sense’ their way around hazards.

The universal “long cane‟ is used worldwide but does not detect elevated obstacles, such as tree branches, and users have to discover obstacles by progressively tapping them. An alternative is guide dogs, but these are expensive and have a limited working day.

A Leeds team undertook a research programme which led to the development of real-time tomographic systems based on ultrasonic sensors. They identified the opportunity to create a new device based on this research – a multi-sensor ultrasonic cane for people with sight loss which can identify ground-level and elevated obstacles. It gives progressive warning of obstacles – switchable between 2 and 4m away in the direction of travel and up to 1.6m vertically.

Technology mimicking bat echolocation

The UltraCane uses ultrasonic waves - just as bats do - to reveal the location of obstacles. This data is then relayed to users through vibrations to the handle helping them to ‘feel’ their way around hazards. It gives progressive non-contact warning of all obstacles, offering the level of safety, ease of progress and dignity enjoyed by sighted people.

The University of Leeds developed the product, and practitioners have praised it for improving mobility, safety, and independence. Following trials with volunteers with sight loss, the technology was improved and redeveloped by a University spin-out company. The UltraCane is now available in 28 countries worldwide and has influenced the policies and practice of professionals, with around 50 organisations worldwide selling / loaning UltraCanes and providing training.

Revolutionising lives

The technology provides an alternative for people who consider there to be a stigma in using a conventional cane. User testimonials provide evidence of its transformative effect on their quality of life and describe improved independence, and an ability to avoid accidents and injury.

When using the UltraCane, people thought I was faking being blind, because I would tell them where things were and go around them...

User testimonial

Engaging the public in science and engineering

The innovation has received national and international recognition winning a raft of awards including the Sony–sponsored ‘Design application of the year award’, BBC Tomorrow’s World ‘best healthcare innovation’ and the Ultracane was selected by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office as one of eight ‘innovations inspired by nature’ to feature in the Japan World Expo in 2005.  In 2012, the UltraBike was developed for a BBC 1 programme “Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature”, using the technology developed by Leeds and adapted for use on a bicycle. A blind man rode an UltraBike through a woodland pathway, which led to the world's first cycle event for blind and partially sighted people, and the UltraBike being exhibited in the London Science Museum.

Funders: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, EU and DTI