The Blind Driver Challenge team from Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory has retrofitted a four-wheel dirt buggy that uses audio cues, a tactile map and laser range finders among other technology to guide vision impaired drivers as they control the vehicle.
With the help from a $3,000 grant from the Federation, plus hardware and software donations from interested companies, the school's Mechanical Engineer Dept. and 9 undergrad students spent about 2 years on the project.
Sitting inside the vehicle, a blind driver can turn the steering wheel, stop, and accelerate by following data from a computing unit that uses sensory information from the laser range finder serving as the 'eyes' of the driver, in addition to a combination of voice commands and a vibrating vest as guides.
It's still in the early testing stage but the National Federation of the Blind considers the vehicle a major breakthrough for independent living of the visually impaired.
"Blind people have brains, the capacity to make decisions. Blind people want to live independent lives. Why would they not want to drive?" said Mark Riccobono of the Jernigan Institute.
The prototype will be unveiled at Daytona Beach, Fla. near the Daytona, in January 2011. The lucky blind driver who will pilot the prototype has not yet been chosen.
As Dr. Marc Mauer, president of the NFB, told the AP: "We're moving away from the theory that blindness ends the capacity of human beings to make contributions to society."
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