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UVic ingenuity builds a unique tricycle for blind children
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Around the ring

Three-and-a-half-year-old Jonathan Eby, son of faculty member Barbara Hawkins, test drives the special tricycle. Looking on is one of its builders, engineering co-op student Eric Auer. [Darren Stone photo]




Ticket to ride
UVic ingenuity builds a unique tricycle for blind children


Being able to ride a bike is something most kids take for granted. But it’s an activity that poses obvious challenges for blind children.

Not anymore.

A prototype tricycle developed by the University of Victoria Assistive Technology Team (UVATT) enables sight-impaired children between the ages of three to six to ride freely, without the worry of colliding with walls or other obstacles.

“These children have limited opportunities to get vigorous exercise and often have poor muscle development and tone,” says Dr. Nigel Livingston (biology), co-ordinator of UVATT. "Besides, just like any child, they’d get a thrill from riding around on a bike.”

UVATT, formed in 1999, is a group of about 40 UVic faculty, staff and students who volunteer their time and expertise to develop and test new devices for people with disabilities. Included on the team are machinists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, biologists, physiologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, technicians, and students.

One of UVATT’s first projects involved the design of a communication system based on brainwaves for severely disabled Victoria teenager Claire Minkley (The Ring, Sept. 20, 2001). “The Claire project,” as it became known, gained national and international media attention for its novelty and potential. The project is still ongoing.

Last fall, Livingston made a short presentation to therapists at the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health in Saanich, outlining UVATT’s objectives and capabilities. Within a month, the health centre presented Livingston with a three-item wishlist, including a tricycle that could be used to encourage movement, social interaction and play by blind or sight-impaired children.

Livingston turned for help to UVic engineering professor Afzul Suleman, whose mechanical engineering 350 course requires students to work in groups to design a specified device. Over the next two months five studentsPaul Francescutti, Tom Owen, Craig Rice, Anne Stukas and Jane Watsonworked with UVATT and the health centre to come up with a unique tricycle design. “The students were a pleasure to work with, enthusiastic and very talented,” says Livingston.

This past summer UVATT hired Eric Auer, a fourth-year engineering co-op student, to transform the design into reality. The goal all along had been to keep costs to a minimum, so two discarded tricycles were scavenged for parts. The resulting hybrid was made adjustable for children of different ages and sizes. The seat was also lowered to increase stability and ease of contact with the ground.

The tricycle’s key features are two ultrasonic “sonar vision” sensors mounted on the handlebars that beep when the rider approaches objects or obstacles. “They’re the same as those used in Jaguars in their reversing systems,” says Livingston, who sought technical support from the engineers at the sensor manufacturer in Ontario. He was also assisted by Pat Kerfoot, the electronics technician in UVic’s biology department.

The prototype tricycle has already been to the Queen Alexandra for initial testing. After final adjustments are made, a second one will be built and delivered to the health centre, which is planning to showcase them in a live Webcast to childcare development centres across B.C. The bikes will then go to the homes of two of the health centre’s outreach childrenone in Langford and the other in Port Alberni.

In the meantime, the UVATT team is working on extending the tricycle’s sensor rangefrom eight to 15 feetand designing a tricycle for a young boy with dwarfism. Other devices are also in the works.

These projects demonstrate how UVic can be an excellent resource for the community, says Livingston. “There’s a huge need for special devices or technology for the disabled, but they’re generally not available because they’re so expensive to develop. At UVic we have all this fantastic expertise and equipment, so it’s just a question of bringing them all together.” For more information on UVATT projects, or to volunteer or make a donation, call Livingston at 721-7121 or