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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine
By Jonathan Beard
An intelligent white cane that blind people can use to find their way has been developed
by researchers in Michigan. The cane is a robot that will gently lead them around any
obstacles in their path.
"Many industrial robots are strong and capable, but almost blind," says Johann
Borenstein of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "The intelligent cane we have
created for the blind is the opposite."
The prototype GuideCane looks a little like an upright vacuum cleaner. In its base is a
crescent-shaped array of ultrasonic sensors that scan the area ahead. A built-in computer
interprets the data from the sensors, calculates the best route every 50 milliseconds, and
steers the device accordingly.
All a blind person has to do is follow. "It was immediately intuitive, there was
nothing to learn," says Carroll Jackson, one of the first blind people to try the
prototype. "Indoors," he says, "I was comfortable using it within a few
The GuideCane weighs about 4 kilograms. Borenstein and Jackson say that unlike a guide dog
it requires no maintenance other than recharging its batteries. "The majority of
blind and visually impaired Americans are over 60," says Jackson, "and few of
them can care for a dog or provide enough activity to keep it healthy."
At the moment the device cannot sense overhanging obstacles and it can only operate on
smooth surfaces. It also can't cope with stairs. "The first thing we want to add to
the cane is some upward-pointing sensors," says Borenstein. "Ultimately, we
would like to incorporate a global positioning satellite receiver, so that users could
choose a destination, and the GuideCane would steer them along the best course."
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