July, 2020

Ashish Sachdeva: Improving transit access for people with disabilities

When TransLink introduced Compass Cards, seniors and people with disability faced a new challenge. There were many who could not physically tap the cards to gain access to the fare gates. However, there was one consulting group that was keeping a tap on these issues and trying to look for the solution to this unfair problem. Recently TransLink, in association with this Vancouver-based company, introduced the first-ever Universal Fare Gate Access Program to offer fully automated touch less access to a gated transit system for people with disabilities.

The program participants will be provided with radio-frequency identification (RFID) cards that will automatically send a signal to RFID readers located above designated accessible fare gates. The fare gate will open when the card comes within range and close once the customer passes through.

The name of the company is Hyperlight Systems. And the man behind is — Ashish Sachdeva, co-founder and executive director of the company. An immigrant from India, Sachdeva came to Canada as a student. His passion for technology encouraged him to find a company that offers accessibility and smart city solutions. The company specializes in wireless sensors and data analytics and provides end to end system integration. “We start by getting a full understanding of the problem we are trying to solve. Then we provide a custom solution by executing the design, engineering, implantation, installation, support, and maintenance of the service,” he says.

In an interview with Desi Today, Sachdeva shares the story behind his company and how they worked with TransLink to implement this new technology for the fare gates.

Please tell us something about yourself. How did you land in Vancouver?

I was born in New Delhi, India and moved to Canada in 2009. Since I was 10 years old, I have always been fascinated by technology, sensors, and automation.

I went to an engineering college in India for undergraduate studies (B.Tech), and wanted to further learn how developed countries like Canada, with a relatively small population, leverage technology to solve complex urban problems in healthcare, public infrastructure, and other areas, to sustain the excellent quality of life and a strong economy.

My passion for research, and learning about new cultures led me to apply for multiple graduate schools in North America and the UK. In 2009, I received a full scholarship from the University of Northern British Columbia to study MSc. in Computer Science, and that helped me make my decision to move to Canada.

How were your initial days in Canada?

My struggles were similar to a lot of immigrants who move to Canada. I had limited financial resources and did not have friends or family for any kind of support. Adjusting to life in a new country was not without its challenges. It took me nearly 3-4 years to fully adapt the culture. Fortunately, UNBC enabled me to meet many new friends from around the world, and learn about Canadian culture. It was still tough for many years but I feel my success is the direct result of my struggles.

When and why Hyperlight Systems was born?

Hyperlight Systems began as a consulting company. We wanted to use technology to help make cities smarter. In 2016 we transitioned from consulting to innovating. We saw the story on the news about TransLink’s new Compass Card system and the barriers that were created for people with accessibility issues who couldn’t physically tap their card. We began researching how other cities in the world cater to their users with mobility issues and saw there is a huge gap in access to services. Vancouver is not unique in its challenges.

TransLink proposed an initial solution of installing a new glass door entry system. We knew that instead, we could keep the existing fare gates, and implement RFID technology. We wanted to collaborate with TransLink to use the existing system and they were keen to let us. It has been a fantastic partnership and we’re thrilled with what we’ve been able to accomplish with them in such a short amount of time. That’s the story of how Hyperlight Systems was born.

Please tell us more about this project and your role in it?

We started working with TransLink on the RFID system design and implementation. We worked closely with their technical team to provide a wireless solution that can open existing fare gates, without the need to tap a compass card. We approached TransLink with a solution that would be implemented in a more affordable and more efficient way than complete fare gate renovation (which was another option available at the time). They chose us because our solution enabled them to use existing fare gates and automate up to 4 times more gates per station versus renovation solution that was previously proposed. Thus providing more accessibility for everyone.

How does the Universal Fare Gate Access Program work? Approximately how many stations it’s been installed?

To use the Universal Fare Gate Access Program, users must apply online at translink.ca/opengates . Anyone who has challenges tapping their compass card is encouraged to apply. Once TransLink receives your application, they connect you with an occupational therapist who will advise you on how to best use the technology. In the station, there are RFID sensors that have been installed above the fare gate. When you approach the gate, the sensors detect valid proof of payment, and the gates swing open. That’s the RFID technology at work. Our technology is currently in 23 stations, that’s 40% of the TransLink system. The plan is to be fully implemented by the end of 2018.

Where else this technology can be used where accessibility is an issue for people with disabilities?

This technology can also be used in elevators. We are currently developing a proof of concept; the vision is that as long as someone has the same RFID card, the elevator will recognize that card, call the elevator down, and take them to the floor they are trying to access.

What can you tell more about this technology to our readers and about its future?

RFID technology has existed for many years. It’s only in the last few years that the cost of RFID has been reduced. That has helped to increase adoption and awareness of different levels of this technology. Today RFID technology is being used in many different areas. In retail, it’s the tags on clothes that set off a sensor to prevent people from shoplifting. The technology is also being used to collect tolls on bridges (such as the Port Mann Bridge to Surrey.)

The biggest concern raised during the use of this technology is privacy of the customer. You think even privacy can be a concern with the fare gate program? How are you planning to address it?

Privacy is a key factor that we considered in creating our design. We don’t store any personal information on the RFID card itself. Further, all information is encrypted.This means there should be no privacy concerns for our users.

Ultimately, this technology is about making transit systems accessible for people with mobility issues. Being able to make transit accessible to everyone, everywhere is our chief priority at Hyperlight Systems, and we are proud to have made Vancouver the first market that our technology is operating in. We cannot wait to roll out this same solution in other cities that need it, using Vancouver and TransLink as the successful example and true leader in universal accessibility.

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