Navigating an unfamiliar building can be daunting and difficult for people with disabilities. To help, a team of researchers from Wichita State University is currently in the early stages of developing digital maps to improve accessibility indoors, where GPS or satellite systems often fail.
In December, the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator Track awarded the Wichita State-led team a $750,000 grant to gather information and create digital maps of indoor spaces that could be used by people with disabilities.
“A person using a wheelchair often doesn’t know the accessible route,” said Vinod Namboodiri, professor and associate director for research engagement at the College of Engineering. “It leads to less participation of people with disabilities in the world of work or perhaps in other aspects of life. What we’re trying to do is improve quality of life, improve job opportunities from that, hopefully, which leads to broader gains for society.”
The creation of maps (MABLE – Mapping for Accessibility in Built Environments) through crowdsourcing, experiences, observations and robots will help people with disabilities to evaluate, plan and navigate indoor environments with audio and visual information. Intended users include those with visual or motor impairments (blind, visually impaired, wheelchair users, cane users, etc.).
The project, Namboodiri said, can appeal to a larger population by helping anyone who enters an unfamiliar building, such as freshmen on their first day of class.
“Maps allow you to study a space, weighing your comfort as in, ‘Do I even want to go to that building?'” Namboodiri said. “You want to live independently and learn things.”
NSF selected 16 multidisciplinary teams with projects that improve opportunities for people with disabilities. Namboodiri is proud that the Wichita state-led project is part of a group with projects from schools like Stanford, Cornell, Northwestern and Harvard.
Wichita State’s previous work in this area has strengthened its grants credentials.
“It’s a very prestigious and very selective award,” Namboodiri said. “We got it thanks to our history. They felt that we could make contributions. We made a good case from the middle of the country that we can do stuff too.
In 2020, the NSF awarded more than $1.1 million to Namboodiri and a team to create a community-based guidance system for people with disabilities. That project focused on filling the gaps in traditional GPS systems to help with emergency evacuation, remote assistance, and traveling within the transit system using an app.
In 2021, NSF invited Wichita State to host a seminar that highlighted the school’s emphasis on accessibility and inclusion.
“We are heavily invested as a university in advancing solutions for people with disabilities,” said Namboodiri. “That seminar led the National Science Foundation to create a funding opportunity for everyone to apply across the country. That’s where this project came from.”
The first phase of NSF grants is designed to develop new technologies and tools to improve the quality of life and access to employment and opportunities for people with disabilities. In the second stage, teams submit a formal proposal and compete for additional support of up to $5 million over 24 months to develop their sustainability development plans and solutions.
“It’s essentially a competition between these 16 teams,” said Namgoodiri. “Academics typically work very slowly and methodically which takes many years. They’re essentially turning us into startups in a sense. They are training us to present a product, create the right marketing message, so that we can reach not only the end users, but also the people who could be funding projects.”
The WSU research team includes Wichita State Associate Professor Nils Hakansson (College of Engineering), Georgia Tech Associate Professor Patricio Vela (School of Electrical and Computer Engineering), Kansas State Associate Professor Siny Joseph (Department of Economics agriculture) and Florida Institute of Technology professor Ted Conway (Department of Biomedical Engineering). Wichita State students will help with research.