In previous years, if one were to consider the range of mobility aids available for the disabled, there would be little more to the list than wheelchairs and sticks. However, in the last decade there has been a boom in the market for disability aids, with many of these products not necessarily facilitating the mobility of a patient, but encouraging increased levels of mobility with novel uses of technology, especially focusing on safety as a major issue.
Take for example, aids for the visually impaired to increase mobility. There are a variety of devices, which use an interesting range of technologies. There are mainly devices that detect obstacles in the path of the user, and alert the user to the obstruction. The user may be altered by a noise, either a voice imitation, or a beeping, or more favourably by vibration.

Obstacle detectors use the principle that objects will deflect wave signals. Ultrasonic or laser light normal are used as wave source, because their shorter wavelengths mean that even small objects are detectable. When a wave hits an object, the wave is reflected and the detector will measure the time it takes to receive the reflection or echo. The distance to the object can be calculated by multiplying the known speed of the wave, with the measured time lapse. The signals sent to the user get stronger or more frequent as they approach the object. With an audio device, the beeping may get higher in pitch, louder or more frequent, while a vibrating device may increase the intensity or frequency of the vibrations.
Some devices are built into mobility devices, such as a walking cane, whilst others will offer greater flexibility to the user, by being a separate unit. This means that the unit can be attached to anything from a wheel chair to a walking stick.

However, these devices are not infallible. Objects with a soft surface will appear further away than they actually are, or be detected after a hard surface at the same distance. This is because the hard surface will reflect almost the entire wave, meaning that the echo is strong, whilst a soft surface will absorb a large portion of the wave, meaning that the signal received by the detector is much weaker. Another major problem, and a reason that these devices should be used in conjunction with a walking cane or similar aid, is that laser light will pass straight through glass. This means that it is effectively invisible to the detector and could prove to be very dangerous for a person with reduced visual capabilities. In a technologically advancing era, there are also a number of considerations which have to be made about possible sources of interference with the waves used for detection.
The latest advance in aids for the visually impaired uses extensive bowed sonar waves, to assess the position of objects, relative to each other. After training, users are able to recognise a shape and position or an object, by the intensity and pitch of a sound played to them via an earpiece. This has been termed “seeing through sound”.

These products may provide a solution for many disabled people. However, many problems are not that easily solved, and in these cases there are charitable organisations which can help to deliver solutions. One such charity is the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering, BIME. The charity has around 20 permanent staff, some of who are mechanical engineers, others electrical engineers and some who are support staff, and boasts mechanical and electrical engineering workshops.

The charity receives between 50 and 100 requests each year from patients of clinicians, presenting either a problem or an idea. The initial contact with the charity is through an occupational therapist, who can help to clarify the problem or idea. In many cases there is already a product on the market that can be used, which the patient or clinician may not have been aware of. If there are no suitable products already available, BIME will conduct a feasibility study to assess if a product can be developed for a reasonable price. The possibly end-user base is also assessed at this point. If the potential for the product is positive, BIME will go on to develop a solution. However, if the charity feels that there is little call for the product, they will refer the patient or clinician in question, to one of a group of companies called the “Demand Forum”, who can offer one-off, bespoke solutions, to patient’s problems. Funding may come from research councils, commercial donors or endowment trusts. In the event that the charity cannot get financial funding, they have a reserve from which they may themselves fund a project if BIME feels it should definitely go ahead.

If BIME takes on the development project, it may decide that it does not have the capabilities to market and distribute the products, in which case an alliance with another company will be formed. In some cases, BIME may not be able to manufacture a product. In these cases, partnerships with manufacturing companies will be formed. Of the requests received each year, just over 20 will evoke the development of a new product by BIME.

For further information please contact:

Katja Feick
Corporate Communications
+44 (0) 207 915 7856