[tabi] Fw: [leadership] [Missouri-l] Blind can take wheel with new vehicle

  • From: "Easy Talk" <easytalk@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <tabi@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 17 Jul 2009 20:59:01 -0400

----- Original Message ----- From: "peter altschul" <paltschul@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
To: "Acblead" <leadership@xxxxxxx>
Sent: Friday, July 17, 2009 7:43 PM
Subject: [leadership] [Missouri-l] Blind can take wheel with new vehicle

Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of
the Blind's
Jernigan Institute, drives the Virginia Tech Blind Driver
vehicle through an obstacle course of traffic cones on a campus
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.  Credit: Steven Mackay,

A student team in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering is
the blind with an opportunity many never thought possible: The
to drive.

A retrofitted four-wheel dirt buggy developed by the Blind
Challenge team (http://www.me.vt.edu/blinddriver/) from Virginia
Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory uses laser range finders, an
voice command interface and a host of other innovative,
technology to guide blind drivers as they steer, brake, and
Although in the early testing stage, the National Federation of
Blind -- which spurred the project -- considers the vehicle a
breakthrough for independent living of the visually impaired.

"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
summer.  Majerus is an access technology specialist with the
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.

Majerus called his drive a liberating experience, adding that he
before on Nebraska farm roads with his father as a guide in the

Sitting inside the vehicle, a blind driver can turn the steering
stop and accelerate by following data from a computing unit that
sensory information from the laser range finder serving as the
'eyes' of
the driver, in addition to a combination of voice commands and a
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

"It's a great first step," Majerus added.  "As far as the
between human instructions and those given by the voice in the
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,
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
he said

In 2004 Jernigan Institute challenged university research teams
to develop
a vehicle that would one day allow the blind to drive.  Virginia
Tech was
the only university in the nation to accept the nonprofit's call
two years
later, said Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms
Laboratory, part of the Virginia Tech mechanical engineering
The National Federation of the Blind provided a $3,000 grant to
launch the

"I thought it would be a very rewarding project, helping the
blind," said
Hong, the current faculty adviser on the project.  "We are not
only excited
about the vehicle itself, but more than that, we are excited
about the
potential of the many spin-off technologies from this project
that can be
used for helping the blind in so many ways."

The team will bring the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle to the
Federation of the Blind's Youth Slam summer camp event held July
through Aug.  1 in College Park, Md.  There, the team hopes to
teenagers who would be obtaining their driver's licenses, but
because of their blindness, drive the buggy.

Wesley Majerus, an access technology specialist with the
Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute, finishes driving
Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge vehicle around a roped-off
course on a campus parking lot.  The experience, he said, was

Youth participants also are expected to remote control drive
cars.  Additionally, the car is expected to ride in a National
of the Blind-sponsored parade in Washington D.C.

"I most look forward to learning as much as I can from these
bright young
students," said Greg Jannaman, who led the Virginia Tech student
team in
his senior year and graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in
mechanical engineering.  "Blind students from across the nation
apply to be
selected to attend this summer camp.  While we are there to
provide an
educational experience for them, I can only imagine the
feedback and fresh new ideas that they will provide in return."

Jannaman is excited about the vehicle's success.  "There wasn't
a moment's
hesitation with any of our blind drivers, whereas blind-folded
drivers weren't as quick to let go of their preconceptions,"
said Jannaman
of Hendersonville, Tenn.  "The blind drivers actually performed
better than
their sighted counterparts.  An overwhelming sense of
overcame me as I simply rode along while Wes and Mark
navigated the driving course without my assistance."

Early models of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle relied more
technologies for fully autonomous vehicles, previously developed
Virginia Tech mechanical engineering students as part of the
Challenge.  The student team redesigned the vehicle so that the
motorist has complete control of the driving process, as any
driver would.

This change in approach led to new challenges, including how to
effectively convey the high bandwidth of information from the
sensors scanning the vehicle's surrounding environment to the
driver fast
enough and accurate enough to allow safe driving.  As a result,
the team
developed non-visual interface technologies, including a
vibrating vest
for feedback on speed, a click counter steering wheel with audio
spoken commands for directional feedback, and a unique tactile
interface that utilizes compressed air to provide information
about the
road and obstacles surrounding the vehicle.

Riccobono knows of mock ups and non-working "blind driver car"
from the past, but says this is the first working vehicle to put
the blind
and visually impaired in control of the steering wheel.  "Blind
people have
brains, the capacity to make decisions," he said.  "Blind people
want to
live independent lives, why would they not want to drive?"

Even once the technology is perfected, laws now barring the
blind from
driving and public perception must be changed, Riccobono said.
"This is
the piece that we know will be the most difficult," said
Riccobono, adding
that the car must be near-perfected before the National
Federation of the
Blind can truly push the car to law-makers and the general
public.  He said
this effort will take millions of dollars in development.

The 2009-10 student team already is planning major changes to
technology, including replacing the dirt buggy vehicle with a
electric car commonly used by traffic officers in downtown city
The all-electric vehicle would reduce the vibration which can
problems to the laser sensor, and it will provide clean electric
power for
the computing units and that is better for the environment.

Source: Virginia Tech (news : web)

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