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Public Roads - September/October 2016

September/October 2016
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 2
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Harnessing Technology to Ease The Way

by David Kuehn

FHWA’s EAR Program is mapping a path forward for the development of assistive navigation tools for visually impaired pedestrians.


A member of the research team from the City College of New York, left, accompanies volunteer Barbara Campbell as she navigates to an eighth-floor office in USDOT’s headquarters during FHWA’s demonstration of mobile technology to assist visually impaired pedestrians.


For the approximately 2 million working-age adults in the United States with reported vision loss, independent travel and interactions with the surrounding environment present significant daily challenges. These difficulties can result in loss of independent mobility, reduced quality of life, and compromised safety. To address these challenges, the Federal Highway Administration’s Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program funded three projects; one each with the City College of New York, TRX Systems, and Auburn University to examine new technological solutions for wayfinding and navigation guidance for people with vision impairment.

In November 2015 and March 2016, FHWA held demonstrations of new technologies from these projects to assist blind and vision-impaired pedestrians. The technologies adapt sensor and guidance systems found in luxury passenger vehicles. For the demonstrations, blind pedestrians navigated across busy streets in Washington, DC, and into an office in the headquarters building of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

How the Demos Came About

Starting in 2009, as part of seeking out next-generation technologies for connected vehicles and infrastructure, the EAR Program invested in research on multisensor data fusion to provide potential high-precision, low-cost systems for lane navigation in vehicles. The goal for the technology was to develop systems robust enough to work in dense urban areas and other conditions with limited GPS reception.

Mohammed Yousuf, a research transportation specialist in the Office of Operations Research and Development, suggested applying similar advances to assist people with disabilities. Working with FHWA’s reference library, Yousuf performed a reference scan of who was conducting related cutting-edge research.

FHWA then held a 1-day workshop in February 2011 with experts from a range of disciplines and industries.

“We wanted to further examine technological innovations in accessible transportation,” says Yousuf. “It was critical to better understand the requirements of pedestrians and travelers with visual impairment or other disabilities.” In September 2011, the EAR Program released a workshop summary report, Technological Innovations in Transportation for People with Disabilities (FHWA-HRT-11-041). The report is available at

Finding Ways To Assist

Based on the feedback received at the workshop, the EAR Program decided to invest in research on assistive technologies for accessible transportation and included the topic in a broad agency funding announcement. In response to the announcement, research teams of investigators from different sectors and disciplines came together and proposed approaches for solving transportation questions, such as how to provide navigation and wayfinding to visually impaired pedestrians. In 2012 and 2013, FHWA made awards to three teams, each with a different approach.

The Exploratory Advanced Research Program
Logo. The logo for the Exploratory Advanced Research Program shows four squares arranged in a grid with simplified icons of a camera, a satellite, a bridge, and a globe, with the words “Exploratory Advanced Research” along the top and right side of the grid.The EAR Program addresses the need to conduct research on longer term and higher risk breakthrough research. The program seeks out advances in science and technology that could result in transformational improvements in highway transportation. Each year, staff members work with subject matter experts to evaluate dozens of potential research topics across a range of scientific disciplines and industries. The team seeks to assess fundamental advances that have the potential to be applied to current or emerging transportation issues. The EAR Program then invests in three or four topics annually through an open solicitation.

The City College of New York received an award to research situation awareness and assistive navigation technologies. Working with Visibility Metrics LLC, the team used a computer vision approach to mapping, localization, and audio directions using data from GPS, geographic information systems, and intelligent transportation system infrastructure.

TRX Systems, a small business located in Maryland, worked with AnthroTronix, the University of Maryland College Park, and the Abrahamson Pediatric Eye Institute at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to develop a navigation aid that can track the location of a user anywhere, including areas where GPS is unavailable. Such a tool will help to increase the mobility of people with vision disabilities by providing them with spatial awareness for long-path planning and guidance. The project uses data from multiple sensors, including wideband beacons and haptic information--touch-based notifications such as vibration--to guide the user.


FHWA Associate Administrator Michael Trentacoste, head of the Office of Research, Development, and Technology and director of the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, and Bryna Helfer, deputy assistant secretary for public engagement for USDOT, welcome participants during an opening panel for the February 2016 demonstration.


Karl Belanger, an access technology specialist from the National Federation of the Blind, demonstrates a prototype wayfinding and navigation system at USDOT headquarters in November 2015.


Auburn University’s shoe-mounted inertial sensor helps correct the heading and determine the distance traveled in locations where GPS signals are weak or unavailable.


Auburn University, working with Draper Laboratory and the National Federation of the Blind, received an award to develop a system designed to fill gaps where GPS navigation is insufficient, such as in parks, intersections, and general pedestrian zones. The team focused on indoor and outdoor navigation, combining satellite signals with inertial and other sensors to provide precision location information.

Testing the Technologies

With the research ongoing and positive initial results from laboratory testing, in 2014 the EAR Program asked the research teams to demonstrate their technologies for Federal staff and stakeholders. With support from the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center and the District Department of Transportation, the EAR Program determined a test route. Blind pedestrians would navigate along urban sidewalks in Washington, DC, across a signalized intersection, into USDOT’s west headquarters building, through an underground concourse to the east building, and then to an office on the eighth floor.

TRX Systems and AuburnUniversity participated in the initial demonstration in November 2015 with a group of about 40 stakeholders observing from USDOT, other Federal organizations, State and local transportation agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. City College demonstrated its system using the same route in March 2016. All of the teams showed the potential of tools for assisting blind pedestrians using current or near-market smartphone technology combined with other low-cost sensors. The technology is not a substitute for good navigation skills using a cane or guide dog and route planning.

Combined with good navigation skills, the technology has the potential to enhance the confidence and safety of blind individuals when crossing signalized intersections, encountering unexpected detours, or finding points of interest such as a restroom or cafeteria in a building that they have not traveled to previously.

The EAR Program is working with stakeholders so the advances do not end up on the laboratory shelf.

“With the continued advances in mobile technology and mapping,” says Yousuf, “There is strong potential that the technology can be both affordable and reliable.”

David Kuehn is the program manager for FHWA’s EAR Program. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California and a B.A. from the University of California, Irvine.

For more information, see or contact David Kuehn at 202–493–3414 or