Newswise — A new, one-of-a-kind robot uses the latest technology to help the visually impaired find their way when traditional guide dogs can't. The Robotic Guide is a combination of high-tech computer parts and a mobile base that assists the visually impaired in busy areas such as grocery stores, malls and airports.
The robot uses radio frequency technology to give directions, product location and information to the visually impaired once they enter a store or airport.
"This robot would make a difference in my life," said Sachin Pavithran, a visually impaired test subject for the project. "I would go to a grocery store by myself if something like this were available to me. It would help in so many places where I can't go alone now. When I am in an airport and have a flight layover, I am often stuck in one place because I can't get around by myself. This robot would give me back some independence."
Utah State University computer science professor Vladimir Kulyukin and four Utah State graduate students invented the robot. The robot uses a sensor that hones in on radio frequency identification tags. The tags, which can be placed discretely in any indoor environment, localize the robot. The user simply reads a Braille directory and selects a target location. The robot, in turn, tells the user where to go relaying information along the way.
Once the user reaches the target destination the robot is capable of giving detailed information about specified products, such as where to find the toothpaste on a grocery store shelf. The robot is not intended to replace the guide dog, which is often a blind person's best resource; it merely enhances what a seeing-eye dog can provide.
Kulyukin said that when a visually impaired person is in a new environment, such as an airport, a guide dog can't guide that person to the correct location because it's never been there either. Robotic Guide will lead the way without the need for human assistance thus giving the visually impaired person more freedom.
"Dogs may be man's best friend, but in the case of a blind person that relationship is taken to the next level " they are essential," said Kulyukin. "The only problem with a guide dog is that they only know to go where they have been taught."
Kulyukin and his team have been perfecting the robot for the past two years. The group would like to see robotic shopping carts in grocery stores and robotic smart carts in airport terminals.
"I have always been interested in assistive technology and wanted to build something that actually makes a difference," said Kulyukin. "This is practical stuff and works well at enhancing human life."
Kulyukin wants to keep working on the robot to ensure it is available for consumers. The team is also working on a wearable navigation system for the visually impaired that works in outdoor environments.
"We are helping people and nothing is more satisfying than that," said Kulyukin.
The Utah State computer science department has supported Kulyukin on this project, which also includes collaborations with Utah State's Center for Persons with Disabilities and the department of psychology. In 2004, Kulyukin received a National Science Foundation Career award totaling nearly $500,000. Kulyukin also received two Community University Research Initiative grants that partially support his research.