Correction: This story has been modified from its original version. — This article has been modified from its original version to more accurately represent some features of the vehicle and the production surrounding it. The Collegiate Times regrets these errors.
One group at Virginia Tech is striving to make cars the new generation of mobility aids for the blind.
The National Federation of the Blind proposed the blind driver project as a challenge to universities across the nation in 2004. Tech is the only school that took on the challenge and expanded it into a research project.
The blind driver challenge has already received recognition from National Instruments.
The team received first place in the robotics category and application of the year in the 2010 Graphical System Design Achievement Awards.
The team plans to develop the project until summer 2011.
“The biggest goal for this year is outfitting two full-sized Ford Escape Hybrids,” said team leader Paul D’Angio, a graduate student in mechanical engineering.
The team is looking forward to two important deadlines in 2011.
The blind driver team will visit Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 29 to have a live demonstration of its fully-equipped vehicles.
At the end of the project’s development in July, the team will take the vehicles to the NFB headquarters in Baltimore.
A blind person was originally slated to then drive the car from Baltimore to Orlando, but this plan was not pursued. At the completion of the trip, the blind driver team will give one vehicle to the NFB and keep one to continue developing.
“We’ve got a lot to go and not a lot of time to do it,” D’Angio said.
The project began in spring 2008 as an independent study under the leadership of Dennis Hong, an associate professor in mechanical engineering who is the director of the RoMeLa laboratory.
The NFB donated $3,000 to jump start the project. Donations from National Instruments and other companies provided the remainder of the funds.
The group’s initial goal was to outfit the Odin car with additional equipment specific to blind drivers.
The NFB suggested creating a vehicle that the individuals could operate without relying solely on the car.
The team made a tactile chair that used vibration on the back and legs to signify a need for acceleration or deceleration and a beeping tone for steering.
“The independent study worked on interface in a simulated environment,” said Ryan Brookmire, a senior mechanical engineering major.
During the first year of the project, the senior design team created a vehicle with the tactile chair installed into an average dune buggy.
A laser range finder was added to the front of the vehicle to pan the area. The laser translates what is seen to a computer, which then alerts the operator.
“We used a lot of new technology to make it work in the real world,” Brookmire said.
Because the vibration of the tactile chair and the vibration of the dune buggy conflicted, a tactile vest was added.
In addition, a click steering wheel was implemented to denote the number of clicks necessary when turning the wheel.
In 2009, a golf cart replaced the dune buggy design in an effort to limit problems related to vibration. Speed strips for the legs of the driver and a boot for the right foot were added as well.
“(The vehicle) moved more to how sighted people would drive,” said Kimberly Wenger, a senior mechanical engineering major and team member.
The drive grip was also added during the second year of development. That feature consists of two standard weight lifting gloves with wires attached. The gloves include vibration and denote when and where to turn.
AirPix made their way into the vehicles during the second year of development as an informational, not instructional, method of driving, Wenger said.
AirPix have a flat surface with holes that expel air. They act as a map for the driver so he or she can navigate independently.
“They want to make their own decisions,” D’Angio said.
This year, the team plans to expand its goals and make corrections to existing equipment, including readdressing the speed strip idea, Brookmire said.
Brookmire said the team hopes to improve the drive grip technology. Currently, the gloves don’t fit all drivers, the wires break frequently and the wires also hang from the top of the car.
Since 2009, the NFB has funded most of the project. The NFB is paying for all equipment and costs for research time.
D’Angio said the blind community acts as a “powerful fuel” for the project.