Smart Cane Provides Navigation Cues for the Blind

green and white leafed plantsSmart Cane Provides Navigation Cues for the Blind

More than 1 million people in the United States are visually impaired, and according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the biggest challenges for these individuals are the ability to determine direction and travel freely from place to place.

While common tools available today include canes or guide dogs, a group of engineering students at Central Michigan University say they have designed another tool to improve mobility. The Smart Cane is a device that detects obstacles and provides navigation cues by using Radio Frequency Identification technology – similar to what some major retailers use to tag merchandise to prevent theft.

“We are one of the first to research the use of RFID technology outdoors,” said Kumar Yelamarthi, a CMU assistant professor of engineering and project leader. “We’re very excited about what this project will lead to.”

The Smart Cane, which has an ultrasonic sensor mounted on it, is paired with a messenger-style bag that is worn across the shoulder. A miniature navigational system inside the bag and the Smart Cane work together to detect RFID tags located on mini flags sticking out of the ground.

A speaker located on the bag strap voices alerts when an obstacle is detected, and also informs the user which direction to move. For those who are visually impaired and cannot hear, the students created a glove that uses sensors to vibrate different fingertips providing an alert or direction.

The students recently set up flags on CMU’s campus and tested the system with volunteers who found it to be effective, especially with navigation. Their recommendations along with data collected by the student team will be passed along to future student design teams with the goal that a fully functional system can be developed and implemented at CMU.

“This project started as a way for me to teach students to see and understand the ways that engineering can be used for the greater good,” Yelamarthi said. “We wanted to do something that would help people and make our campus more accessible.”

Yelamarthi and the students who launched this initial step believe they are heading in the right direction to make this happen.

“The project has immense potential,” said CMU senior Wil Martin of Grayling, who worked on the student team. “This was a preliminary effort that I believe will pave the way for future projects and ultimately result in a device that will help the visually impaired move with the same ease and confidence as a sighted person. It can happen if the project continues. I am confident in this.”

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