When I first heard about the Ultrabike I couldn't quite believe it. It seemed like something out of legend, a dream turning reality. A bike with ultrasonic sensors that could guide blind and partially sighted cyclists? I had to find out more.
I discovered that it was suggested by Richard Hammond for his BBC programme Miracles of Nature. The programme focused on how the abilities of animals have been used to inspire modern technology. For instance, the way bats use sound to navigate has been replicated by the Ultracane, which uses ultrasonic sensors on the cane to guide vision impaired users.
Hammond asked what would happen if this technology was put on a bike. The programme showed the first successful prototype of the Ultrabike, created by Sound Foresight Technology, with blind cyclist Dan Smith riding down a woodland path on his own.
Seeing Dan's success, I couldn't help dreaming of a time when I could seriously take up cycling once more. When I was about eight-years-old I learned to ride a bike on a friends farm in Colombia and could navigate my local area mainly by using echo location. However, I did crash rather a lot and as I grew older and began to think about the consequences of my actions I rode less and less.
It was with good reason therefore that I continued following its progress, as the Ultrabike was trialled at venues throughout the country. Reviews of this incredible technology were full of admiration, and the Ultrabike made a huge impression at its official unveiling at a conference in Glasgow.
Around this time my boss at the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) suggested I should email Sound Foresight Technology, the developers of the UltraBike, and request a trial.
To my delight, I got a very positive response within hours, and before long a date was set in the diary.
Fortunately the busy time leading up to the trial left no space for me to worry about the fact I hadn't ridden a bike for 15 years, and that my sense of direction is quite worrying. So, the morning of the trial dawned and I headed off to the Herne Hill Velodrome where the trial was taking place.
Watch my trial of the Ultrabike
My first surprise was that the Velodrome was an open-air venue, meaning we were somewhat at the mercy of Mother Nature keeping the rain away for the next two hours. The second was being shown the very solid barriers on either side of the 75 Metre track that I would ride down. Third, I was amazed to realise the Ultrabike kit was actually a detachable unit that can be fitted to any standard bike.
Once a rep from Sound Foresight Technology, Julie Davies, had fitted up a tricycle (Yay! No need to worry about balance for now) with the Ultrabike kit we were ready to go. Once on the bike, she explained the Ultrabike unit consisted of a small box housing two sensors pointing forwards and slightly angled to the sides to cover the area ahead and to my sides. I was then instructed to place my hands on the handle bars and touch two buttons beneath the bars one on each side.
I pedalled off cautiously at first with Julie walking beside me. Anytime I felt a vibration either on my left or right, I'd simply flicked the handle bars in the opposite direction to keep myself on track. As I went round my confidence grew surprisingly quickly, to the point where I began to deliberately steer at the barriers to test the vibrations. They grew in intensity the closer I got, and if I headed directly for the barriers both buttons would vibrate. Apart from an adrenaline rush gained from pulling this stunt, it's difficult to explain that the very fact I was empowered to do this on my own, gave me an unbelievable sense of freedom and independence.
Admittedly it is early days. The sensors did not detect the change of tarmac to grass for instance as they weren't pointing down. Also vibrations don't tell you what you're approaching, but you wouldn't catch me cycling in a totally alien environment without checking it out first anyway. Sensors can be placed on the sides and back of the bike if need be to warn of upcoming cyclists, and the range of the ultrasonic scans can be adapted for the environment you are in.
The Ultrabike can open up so many possibilities for blind and partially sighted people. Going on a cycle with family and friends, riding on a cycle track, or even trying out professional racing. I was so lucky to try out this revolutionary product. It was very hard to go home after such an exhilarating trial, and I definitely recommend people to try it as soon as it goes mainstream. It's safe, reliable and most of all fun.