UltraBike for cyclists with sight loss on show at Science Museum

27 September 2013

An ultrasound sensor kit, enabling people with visual impairments to ride a bicycle independently is part of a new exhibition at London’s Science Museum, highlighting innovative engineering that transforms lives.

The UltraBike unit, designed and developed in Harrogate, is detachable and can be fitted onto the handlebars of any bike, was designed by electronics engineer Dr Paul Clark and is on display in the museum’s Antenna gallery.

The unit’s sensors give the rider constant directional feedback of obstacles ahead and at each side, via vibrating buttons positioned underneath each thumb. Despite their visual impairment, this technology enables cyclists who are blind or visually impaired to negotiate their way safely and independently along a controlled cycle track.

The developers of the UltraBike used the same obstacle detection capability in the award winning UltraCane, an electronic mobility aid. The UltraCane is a used by people with sight loss all over the world to avoid hazards and injury that can result when using a standard long cane to walk around.

The UltraCane mimics the echolocation abilities of bats and was featured on the BBC documentary series Miracles of Nature, fronted by Richard Hammond in 2012.

The programme makers approached Dr Clark’s company Comms Design, to adapt the UltraCane technology for use on a bicycle that could be tested with a blind rider. Dan Smith, who had been a keen solo cyclist before losing his sight, was shown on the programme steering a straight course through a heavily wooded cycle path on the first UltraBike.

The display at the Science Museum includes an interview with Dr Clark in which he explains how he approached the challenges of turning a ground breaking ‘what if ’ idea into an engineering reality.

Since the programme, Sound Foresight Technology, also Harrogate-based, has made the kits more widely available, to give groups of visually impaired riders the opportunity to try an UltraBike, most notably at a world first event run by Life Cycle UK in Bristol, on a specially constructed cycle track.

Electronics engineer Dr Paul Clark
Electronics engineer Dr Paul Clark

Dr Clark commented:

The UltraBike is not suitable for visually impaired road cyclists because road drivers assume a cyclist can see, so this is clearly too hazardous. It is designed for use in a supervised and controlled environment and has great potential for use in sport and velodrome settings in particular. We are now looking at specific enhancements to the technology for this purpose.

Sound Foresight Technology is currently working with sports organisations around the country to run UltraBike events and is encouraged by the interest shown in the technology by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and the organisers of the Commonwealth Games, due to take place in Glasgow in 2014.

For details of the UltraBike exhibition at the Science Museum www.antenna.sciencemuseum.org.uk/ultrabike

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