Science & Technology

Robot Guide Dog Picks Up Where Man’s Best Friend Leaves Off

A Utah State University computer scientist is guiding the blind with a one-of-a-kind robot that assists the visually impaired in busy social areas such as grocery stores, malls and airports. The invention, called Robotic Guide, uses radio frequency technology to give directions, product location and information to the visually impaired once they enter a store or airport.
 
For the past two years, Utah State computer science professor Vladimir Kulyukin and four Utah State graduate students have been working on the robot, which 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.
 
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.
 
“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 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.
 
“This robot would make a difference in my life,” said Sachin Pavithran, a visually impaired Utah State alum and test subject for the project. “I would go to a grocery store by myself if something like this was available to me, and I can see its usefulness in many other environments, such as hotels and airports. 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. Having this in an airport would help because I could wander around and stretch my legs. I don’t have that option right now unless I have someone with me.”
 
Kulyukin and his team, including doctoral students Chaitanya Gharpure and John Nicholson and master’s students Amit Banavalikar and Kaushik Srinath, have been tinkering and perfecting the robot for the past two years. The group would like to conduct further on-location tests and would eventually like to see robotic shopping carts in grocery stores and robotic smart carts in airport terminals.
 
“We are far from solving the challenges visually impaired people face daily,” said Gharpure. “I hope Robotic Guide helps. It has so much potential.”
 
“This robot is unique and exciting,” said Banavalikar.
 
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. The Career program recognizes and supports the early career development activities of teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. Kulyukin also received two Community University Research Initiative grants that partially support his research.
 
“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. Next up, 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 Nicholson.
 
Kulyukin received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1998. He has been at Utah State for three years.
 
For more information on Kulyukin and his research, visit his Web site.

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