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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.

Robots Lead the Blind

"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 minutes."

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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