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San Francisco Airport Tests Beacons for Blind Travelers

The location-tracking system can inform visually impaired travelers when they are near a water fountain, an electrical outlet, restroom or a gate, and provide directions.
By Beth Bacheldor
Tags: Aerospace
Aug 12, 2014

San Francisco International Airport is testing a new location-tracking system that could be used to help visually impaired travelers make their way from curbside to gate. The system—designed and installed by startup Indoo.rs (pronounced Indoors), with help from one of its partners, StickNFind Technologies—leverages Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons, a mobile phone application and Apple iPhone's accessibility features and Voiceover technology. It was initially developed as part of the San Francisco Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program, launched in March by San Francisco's mayor, Edwin M. Lee, to explore innovative solutions to civic challenges.

BLE-enabled beacons are designed to transmit unique ID numbers that trigger actions on smartphones or other BLE-enabled devices. Work on the airport project began in April, and the first iteration was completed in July. In the San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 2, nearly 500 StickNFind BLE beacons have been affixed to walls, ceilings and pillars, typically above eye level and out of reach, and made to match the color of what they are on, explains Markus Krainz, Indoo.rs' CTO. The StickNFind beacons, which were developed per engineering specifications determined by Indoo.rs' engineers, are approximately the size and thickness of a bottle cap, and come with batteries that can last about four years.

Nearly 500 StickNFind BLE beacons were affixed to walls, ceilings and pillars in the San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 2.
The design required a trade-off between battery life and transmission rates, Krainz says. "We specified how the beacons were to be made, and StickNFind manufactured the beacons," Krainz says, noting that the beacons have to be very accurate because the system is designed specifically for the visually impaired. In addition to the beacons, the system includes software from Indoo.rs that features state-of the-art algorithms that make up the core of the application that runs on an Apple iPhone. Indoo.rs worked with the airport personnel, who provided flight schedules, building plans and other data that the company used to create the mobile application and install the equipment, according to Krainz. Also, Indoo.rs worked with members of San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to test the system in the airport.

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