Braille Monitor                                                   February 2010

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Why Shouldn’t the Blind Drive?

From the Editor: The following article describes the work that students in the Virginia Tech engineering program are undertaking to create a vehicle that blind people can drive. Business Wire News Releases, in cooperation with Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corporation, published this release on November 16, 2009. Here it is:

Driving can be tedious if you can see. But for the blind driving is one of life’s most sorely missed conveniences. It means independence--the exhilarating possibility of simply going someplace without depending on friends, family, or public transportation schedules. A team of Virginia Tech students is trying to make this possible by helping blind drivers see with their hands and ears, and SolidWorks® CAD software is helping them.

“Many blind people prefer the concept of driving as opposed to being driven,” says Kimberly Wenger, senior and student leader of the Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge (BDC) project. “There’s really no reason the blind can’t drive someday, and they’re already proving it in our semi-autonomous vehicle. The next step is perfecting the technology so they can drive on the open road without endangering anyone. Admittedly that’s a big challenge.”

Blind individuals have been driving Virginia Tech’s specially equipped dune buggy in parking lots throughout the summer. They have full control of the steering, accelerator, and brakes. They follow computer-generated steering commands, e.g., “two clicks to the right,” delivered through headphones. The steering wheel emits an audible click for every five degrees it’s turned. A vibrating vest signals the driver to slow or stop. The on-board computer produces directions based on data about the car’s surroundings collected by a laser on the front of the car.

The Virginia Tech BDC team used SolidWorks to perfect the design of the roulette-style click wheel. “We used SolidWorks to design numerous concepts for the click wheel’s internal mechanisms and to conduct several structured-design reviews,” said Wenger. “SolidWorks helped us visualize everyone’s ideas, narrow them down, detect interference, and choose the best design. Thanks to the reviews, our consensus design has worked flawlessly from day one.” The team also used SolidWorks to design the dashboard panel and battery holder and drive the laser cutting of the parts.

The Next Frontier: Driving Decisions

As wonderful as it is for the blind to drive, the BDC team isn’t satisfied. Why should the blind be told how to drive by a computerized master, rather than make driving decisions themselves?

Consequently the next major feature on the BDC vehicle will be a breakthrough device that gives drivers a real-time tactile topographical map of their surroundings so they can make their own decisions on turning, slowing down, or stopping. Through this device, called the AirPix, drivers will detect terrain through their fingertips. AirPix works something like an air hockey table, with pressure being forced upwards through pin holes. Stronger pressures indicate obstacles. The team is using SolidWorks to design that device too.

“SolidWorks has an easy and intuitive user interface that is ideal for concept generation, visualization, and virtual prototyping,” said Wenger. “It’s making our design decisions much more objective and helping us eliminate errors. Every day we get a little closer to our ultimate goal.”

The Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge project team consists of twelve mechanical engineering students working under Dr. Dennis Hong in his world-renowned Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa). The project is the school’s response to a challenge issued by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, which is dedicated to helping the blind achieve independence. Virginia Tech was the only organization that dared to tackle the challenge.


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