UltraCane and UltraBike: ultrasonic aids for visually-impaired people (Impact Case Study 3)
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leeds
Unit of AssessmentElectrical and Electronic Engineering, Metallurgy and Materials
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing
Engineering: Electrical and Electronic Engineering
Technology: Communications Technologies
Summary of the impact
Research at the University of Leeds led to the development of UltraCane
— an ultrasonic cane for people who are visually-impaired that gives
tactile feedback to the user's hand with progressive non-contact warning
of obstacles (ground-to-head) up to 4 m. [text removed for publication].
Testimonials from users describe its transformative nature on their
quality of life, giving `a true feeling of independence', whilst
healthcare professionals commend `the simplicity of operation and ease
of use'. Furthermore, with a technology mimicking bat echolocation,
the UltraCane has informed and engaged the wider public in science
and engineering through, for example, the BBC `Miracles of Nature'
series. The technology has also been developed to allow people who are
visually-impaired to cycle independently and safely around a cycle track —
In the 1990s, the University of Leeds commenced a programme of research
led by Professor Brian Hoyle on the development of tomographic
techniques for industrial process monitoring. In particular, this research
focussed on the combination of data from multiple sensors to establish
spatial distributions in a range of applications, initially stimulated by
industrial interest in monitoring mate-rial flow in inaccessible
processes, e.g. oilfield flows.
This research gained industrial and research council support, e.g.
through the dti-LINK-IMS project Industrial 3-component flow
measurement using novel tomographic techniques' (GR/H55741) with
UMIST (1993-1996), and EPSRC funding `Intelligent measurement of
velocity profiles in turbulent gas flows using ultrasonic tomographic
imaging' (GR/J49686, 1995). This led to the development of
tomographic systems based on ultrasonic sensors in 1996 .
Major industrial applications were then targeted through investment from
a Foresight Challenge project: `Process tomography — a new dimension in
advanced sensor technology' (GR/L22591) with thirteen partners,
including AstraZeneca, Schlumberger, Unilever, and
Du Pont (1997-2000), and Hoyle's co-ordination of an EU Thematic
Network (BRRT-CT97-5039) on `Advanced Tomo-graphic Sensors for
Industrial Multiphase Imaging' with 30 partners (1997-2000). This
led to the optimization of real-time performance using multiple active
sensors in ultrasonic process tomogra-phy , and the subsequent
optimization for two-phase flow imaging .
Based on this research, Hoyle assembled, and led, a multi-disciplinary
university consortium — the Leeds Ultrasound Research Interest Group
(LURIG) — to explore new application concepts (1996-2002). This group
included, from Biology, Dr Dean Waters who specialized in bat
echolocation, and Dr Deborah Withington, who specialized in
neuroscience, including the perception of sound. Drawing inspiration from
their combined backgrounds, it became apparent that there was an opportunity
to develop a new medical device based on Hoyle's work on
ultrasonic sensors and data fusion techniques [1-3] — a multi-sensor
ultrasonic aid to provide range and safety data for people who are
visually impaired (VI). (We use the accepted phrase `visually impaired'
throughout this case study to refer to people who have a significant
limitation of their visual capability, including those who are completely
blind). This innovation became known as UltraCane. UltraCane
(Fig. 1) works through use of two high-quality-factor, ultrasonic sensors,
integrated within a cane — these give range data to the nearest obstacle,
and provide feedback through two tactile vibrators of haz-ards in the
forward (e.g. people and buildings) and elevated (e.g. overhanging
Through the University's Research and Innovation Services, LURIG filed a
patent in 1997 on the UltraCane concept, which was later extended
to give worldwide coverage . Arising from this, a University spin-out
company, Sound Foresight Ltd, was formed in 1998, and the patent
(which is still maintained) was transferred to the company. Sound
Foresight gained feasibility and usability trial support from a DTI
`Smart' Award (2000-2002) with Cambridge Consultants Ltd. Trials
of an early pilot device (four ultrasonic transducers) with VI volunteers
confirmed the expected gains in safety and mobility. Leeds then
participated in the EU Euro-Assist programme supporting
innovations for VI people (2005-2008); additional trials emphasized UltraCane's
Brian Hoyle (Senior Lecturer, 01/01/1981-31/07/1998; Professor,
01/08/1998-31/07/2012; Research Professor; 01/08/2012-present) —
specialized in multi-sensor ultrasound sensing.
Dean Waters (Lecturer, 01/05/1995-31/07/2002; Senior Lecturer,
01/08/2002-30/06/2010, when he left the University) — specialized in bat
Deborah Withington (Senior Research Fellow, 23/03/1991-31/07/1998;
Principal Research Fellow, 01/08/1998-31/07/1999; Professor,
01/08/1999-31/03/2010, when she left the University) — specialized in
neurophysiology and spatial perception.
References to the research
 B S Hoyle, `Process tomography using ultrasonic sensors', Measurement
Science and Technology 7(3), 272-280 (1996). DOI:
 W Li and B S Hoyle, `Ultrasonic process tomography
using multiple active sensors for maximum real-time performance', Chemical
Engineering Science 52(13), 2161-2170 (1997). DOI:
 M Yang M, H I Schlaberg, B S Hoyle, M S Beck, and C
Lenn, `Real-time ultrasound process tomography for two-phase flow imaging
using a reduced number of transducers', IEEE Transactions on
Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control 46(3), 492-501
(1999). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/58.764834.
 B S Hoyle, M J W Povey, D A Waters, and D J Withington,
Spatial Awareness Device, UK Patent Application 9726014.5, filed 9
December 1997; PCT/GB98/03589, filed 1 December 1998; subsequent filings
and grant dates: Japan JP2003523775T (2003); US US6710706 (2004);
Australia AU757503B and Canada CA2313761 (2005); European EP1 037 583 2004
(followed by all major European state filings).
 B S Hoyle and D A Waters, 14pp, `Mobility Assistive
Technology: The Batcane (UltraCane)', in M A Hersh and M A Johnson (eds),
Assistive Technology for Vision-impaired and Blind People,
Springer-Verlag, London, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-84628-866-1.
Leeds researchers in bold. Outputs 1-3 are all published in
internationally leading peer-reviewed archival journals, are recognized
internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour, and are
particularly highlighted to underpin the impact described in this case
study. Outputs 4 and 5 relate to application of the UltraCane
Details of the impact
Safe mobility is essential for people who are visually impaired (VI). The
universal `long cane' is used worldwide but has major shortfalls, and in
particular does not detect elevated obstacles such as tree branches,
signage, and ladders. Users must discover obstacles by progressive tapping
their cane into them. The alternative is the use of guide dogs, but these
are expensive (typically £35k for a 5 year working life), mainly resulting
from extensive initial training costs. The UltraCane innovation
uses ultrasonic sensors and a tactile feedback to the user's hand to
provide a ground-to-head safety envelope. Importantly, it gives
progressive non-contact warning of obstacles (switchable between 2 m and 4
m away in the direction of travel, and 1.6 m vertically), offering the
level of safety, ease of progress and dignity that sighted people have in
Following patenting (1997) and early trials of the technology through a
DTI `Smart' award, Hoyle/Waters/Withington received the 2002 award for
best `Healthcare Innovation' at the BBC's Tomorrow's World presentation
ceremony, and the Mark 1 product was certified as a medical de-vice. In
2003, Ultracane received the Sony sponsored `Design Application
of the Year Award', and in 2005, it was selected by the Foreign
Office as one of eight `Innovations inspired by nature' and
featured centrally in the UK Pavilion at Japan World Expo, being seen by
~5 million people. In 2006, it received Horner's Award for Innovation from
the Worshipful Company of Horners.
[text removed for publication]
Hoyle proceeded to obtain further investment capital from Dr Paul Clark
(a former member of the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at
Leeds). Comms Design Ltd, a company founded by Dr Clark in 2004,
then provided development support to improve the product [B], including
introducing auto-tuning of the transducers, eliminating previous problems
with manufacturing re-producibility of high-Q electronic circuitry. This
led to the relaunch of UltraCane through a new company, Sound
Foresight Technology Ltd, founded in February 2010, and based in
In the period 2008 to date, UltraCane has led to the following
types of impact:
Economic impact, through the sales of product, and the creation
Health impact, through the take up and use of a new product
that prevents injury and improves the quality of life;
Public Policy and Services impact, through adoption of the
product and improving patient care practice for people with VI
Societal impact, through the drive for inclusion and equality
of people who have a VI disability, by educating the general public, and
by engaging the general public in science and engineering.
[text removed for publication]. Each UltraCane retails (30 June
2013) at £635 per unit [C]. These have been supplied to 28 countries
worldwide, with highest sales in the UK, USA, Australia, Israel and
Germany. This has provided both direct and indirect employment and
commercial activity in the UK and worldwide. Manufacturing is
sub-contracted to Quality Precision Engineers Ltd, an electronic
systems manufacturing company in Scotland, with sensor technology
optimization at Comms Design Ltd (commsdesign.ltd.uk); [text
removed for publication] [A].
There are approximately 50 organisations worldwide that sell/loan UltraCanes
for use with their mobility and orientation specialists who, in turn, give
training to individual VI people. The product is distributed through a
number of channels; directly through the VI accessible web-site
(www.ultracane.com), and through its global network of 23 distributors in
Africa, South America, Central America, North
America, Arabia and Middle-East, Australasia, China
and Far East, Europe (North), Europe (West and South),
Europe (East), Greece and Cyprus [A].
Strong growth in sales is now occurring despite the challenges in
changing healthcare practice. [text removed for publication].
User testimonials endorse the product, and provide evidence of its
significance in improving their quality of life, independence, and ability
to avoid accidents and injury. Testimonials include [D]:
"I got used to using the UltraCane and felt strange when it wasn't
there and I couldn't rely on the cues it provided.... By being able to
literally feel the environment around me..." [Ms C Crespin]
"When using the UltraCane, people thought I was faking being blind,
because I would tell them where things were and go around them and
navigate well..." [Ms A Bradstreet]
"The UltraCane's capacity to detect obstacles ... and provide the
feedback needed to avoid them, helps to give me the information I
need..." [Mr J McAfferty]
"The area I visited is highly congested. There is much foot traffic,
the footways are crowded and one needs to progress slowly even if fully
sighted... I found the UltraCane to be most excellent in this situation.
It was constantly keeping me updated about people and obstacles."
[Mr B Campbell]
Public Policy and Services impact
UltraCane was developed in close association with VI organisations,
with practitioners praising the product in advancing mobility, safety, and
independence for VI people. For example [D]:
"The developers have taken time to ask blind people, and involve them
in trials. I'm convinced it's going to be a real benefit to its blind
and partially sighted users" [Mr A Brooks, New Initi Manager, The
Guide Dogs for the Blind Association]
"What I like about the `UltraCane' is you have everything right there
in one hand — enhanced safety and environmental information..." [Mr
M Corbett, Orientation and Mobility Specialist, USA]
UltraCane has influenced the policies and practice of
professionals in the field of mobility and orientation. For example, Guide
Dogs Queensland run training courses, together with `Graduation
Ceremonies' for new cohorts trained in using the UltraCane [E].
Furthermore, UltraCane allows employers to support VI staff: "I'm
delighted that one of our own valued employees has been supported in
receiving such revolutionary equipment, thanks to the Access to Work
scheme." [Mr P Martin, Leader of Essex County Council] [F]. The
technology also provides an alternative to help people, especially
teenagers, who consider there to be a stigma in using a conventional cane
Societal impact / Public Dissemination of Science and Technology
UltraCane has featured extensively on national/regional television
and radio in the UK and overseas, helping promote science and
engineering to the general public, demonstrating how technology can
address public health challenges, and illustrating to the general public
how VI people can be included through provision of appropriate technology
[G]. The connection with bat echolocation has, in particular, proved
attractive to the general public, and in Autumn 2012, the UltraCane
featured in the BBC 1 primetime `Miracles of Nature' series
presented by Richard Hammond [H]. For this programme, the `UltraBike'
was developed, in which the UltraCane ultrasonic sensors were re-
designed by Hoyle and Clark, and adapted by Sound Foresight Technology
Ltd and Comms Design Ltd for use on a bicycle. The UltraCane's
vertical sensor was replaced by a second sensor facing forward, but
offset, allowing the user to determine the direction for steering, and the
sensing range was increased (switchably) to 10 m. Mr Dan Smith, who is
completely blind, rode an UltraBike through a woodland pathway on
the programme (Fig. 2) [H,I].
This exposure directly led to Life Cycle UK and Sound
Foresight Technology organizing the world's first cycle event for VI
people in Bristol on 22 June 2013 [text removed for publication] [A]. This
also led to the current exhibition of the UltraBike in the London
Science Museum [A] (Fig. 3, [I]), with the public providing on-line
feedback [text removed for publication] [A].
Further examples of the international public reach of this technology
include an exhibition of the UltraCane in the State Museum of
Natural History (Munster, Germany) in 2012 [I], and UltraCane
featuring in a textbook (ISBN 978-3-507-42126-4, published 2012) used in
German schools [I].
Sources to corroborate the impact
[A] Testimonial from the Head of Sales and Marketing, Sound Foresight
Technology Ltd, North Yorkshire, 8 October 2013.
[B] `Sound Foresight Technology relaunch mobility aid', York Press, 11
accessed 13 June 2012.
[C] `Our range of UltraCane products', www.ultracane.com/ultracanecat,
accessed 11 Nov 2013.
[D] UltraCane `User Testimonials' Brochure, Sound Foresight
Technology Limited (most also available on www.ultracane.com,
accessed 16 August 2012).
[E] `Blind woman regains independence', Bundaberg News Mail, 17 October
2011, www.news-mail.com.au/news/blind-woman-regains-independence/1139156/, accessed
4 Nov 2013.
[F] `Techo boost for blind Geoff', Chelmsford Weekly News, 21 October
accessed 29 January 2013.
[G] BBC footage: 19 October 2011 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15363976);
16 July 2013 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=59okFDRY1pk). BBC Radio 4: 9 July 2013
[H] BBC `Miracles of Nature', DVD, Acorn Media, UK, 2012.
[I] www.ultracane.com/news, accessed 31 October 2013.