[Photo: Virginia Tech. Marc Riccobono operates The Blind Driver car]
Dennis Hong (Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering) and his team of engineering students at Virginia Tech create robots and robotic technology.
Amongst all the cool robots they have created, in 2007, they built a robotic car that drives itself for the DARPA Urban Challenge. It received much acclaim and won the 3rd place, $500,000 prize.
Upon discovering the autonomous car, The NFB [National Federation for the Blind] contacted Dr. Hong and requested a special project be created to allow the visually impaired the ability to drive. Dr. Hong thought it was a done deal – just take the autonomous car, put a blind person in it and voila! a blind person is driving.
But that is NOT what the NFB had in mind – they wanted a vehicle that a blind person could drive – make active, independent decisions about the course the vehicle was taking, not just passively be driven around.
An enormous task – one that the Virginia Tech team approached with fervour.
Using a combination of technology that simulates the human inner ear, GPS tracking technology, laser range finders and cameras to detect proximities, along with non-visual cues for the driver – sound systems, vibrating vest & gloves, shoes that apply pressure for acceleration/braking, etc – the car for the visually impaired was born. [It wasn’t nearly as simplistic as I’ve made it sound, watch Dr. Hong’s video below for a more complete explanation.]
And on January 29, 2011 the vehicle was unveiled for the first time and a public test drive was completed by Marc Riccobono at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida.
The impact of these emerging technologies can not be underestimated – safer vehicles for everyone that can “see” in the dark, the fog, etc; creating home appliances for the visually impaired; blind students who can “see” what a teacher writes on a blackboard. All priceless innovations. How cool is that?
Here’s Virigina Tech’s article on the Blind Driver Challenge: http://www.vt.edu/spotlight/impact/2011-02-28-bdc/daytona.html