July 15, 2009 By Blake Harris
Photo: Wesley Majerus, an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute, finishes driving the Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge vehicle around a roped-off driving course on a campus parking lot. (Steven Mackay, Virginia Tech)
One day, it is likely that the blind will eligible for drivers licenses to operate special environment sensing cars. And that day may not be too far away.
In fact, a student team in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering has already built such a car and is giving select blind participants the opportunity to drive. They retrofitted a four-wheel dirt buggy developed by the Blind Driver Challenge team from Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory. Using laser range finders, an instant voice command interface and a host of other innovative, cutting-edge technology to guide blind drivers as they steer, brake, and accelerate, the blind are now able to safely drive the vehicle.
And although the project is still in the early testing stage, the National Federation of the Blind considers the vehicle a major breakthrough for independent living of the visually impaired, according to a news release issued today.
"It was great!" said Wes Majerus, of Baltimore, the first blind person to drive the buggy on a closed course at the Virginia Tech campus this summer. Majerus is an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, a research and training institute dedicated to developing technologies and services to help the blind achieve independence.
Photo: Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute, drives the Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge vehicle through an obstacle course of traffic cones on a campus parking lot. In the passenger seat is Greg Jannaman, who led the student team within the mechanical engineering department during the past year, and is monitoring the software of the vehicle. (Steven Mackay, Virginia Tech)
Majerus called his drive a liberating experience, adding that he drove before on Nebraska farm roads with his father as a guide in the passenger seat.
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. A member of the Virginia Tech student team sat next to Majerus in the passenger seat to monitor the system's software operations.
"It's a great first step," Majerus added. "As far as the differences between human instructions and those given by the voice in the Blind Driver Challenge car, the car's instructions are very precise. You use the technology to act on the environment -- the driving course -- in a very orderly manner. In some cases, the human passenger will be vague, "turn left" -- does that mean just a small turn to the left, or are we going for large amounts of turn?"
Also driving the vehicle was Mark Riccobono, also of Baltimore, the executive director of the Jernigan Institute, who also is blind. He called his test drive historic. "This is sort of our going to the moon project," he said