Blind Drivers Plot Their Own Course
Va. Tech Prototype Vehicle Lets Visually Impaired Students Take the Wheel
Saturday, August 1, 2009
A voice rose above the chatter in the University of Maryland parking lot: "Blind man driving!"
Twenty people took turns piloting a car on this muggy Friday morning, the first public test of technology that might one day overcome barriers to putting the blind behind the wheel.
The quest to drive has captivated the blind community as it has become more integrated into a car-centric society. Some likened Friday's test to a moon landing -- a fitting analogy, considering that the prototype vehicle vaguely resembled a lunar rover.
"One day, we'll be on the road with them," said Ishaan Rastogi, 15, a blind New Jersey high school student with a Yankees cap pulled over his eyes and the first to test the vehicle.
The event capped a summer science academy organized by the National Federation of the Blind for 200 blind and low-vision young people from across the country. The youths had spent the week rock climbing, bungee-jumping and launching weather balloons, activities tailored to teach that there is no limit to what a blind person can do.
Virginia Tech engineers started work on the vehicle in response to a 2004 challenge from the blindness advocacy group to build a vehicle that the blind could drive with the same freedom as the sighted.
"Blind people can do all sorts of things that the public doesn't think we can do," said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the federation. The blind can read ordinary books with a hand-held device that translates type to synthetic speech. Adaptive devices permit blind users to interact with computers and surf the Internet.
Driving without sight became a conceivable goal in this decade with the development of autonomous, computer-guided vehicles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ran a series of contests to inspire a driverless car that could navigate complex terrain. By 2007, vehicles from Virginia Tech and several other universities could complete the DARPA course.
But an autonomous vehicle wasn't enough.
"We want the blind person to be the driver, not to be driven," said Matt Lippy, 21, a member of the nine-person design team at Virginia Tech's Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory.
The design team first sought to customize Virginia Tech's entry in the 2007 DARPA contest, a modified Ford Escape that finished third in the competition. But the engineers decided it would be easier to start from scratch. They purchased an all-terrain vehicle online for $1,300 in fall 2008 and began anew.
They mounted a laser sensor to the front of the vehicle to sweep the terrain ahead and return a signal. A powerful computer at the rear of the buggy interprets the signal to build a two-dimensional map, showing obstacles in the vehicle's path.