Amazing as it sounds, robotics researchers at Virginia Tech are
developing optical technologies that
will allow blind people to drive. Perhaps
this shouldn’t be such a surprise, given
current cars that automatically parallel park or warn a driver about veering
out of a marked lane. The U.S. Defense
Advanced Research Projects
Agency (DARPA), for example,
has run several challenges that
require vehicles to navigate
unaided by a driver.
But the Virginia Tech Blind
Driver Challenge has a different goal from autonomous
vehicles. Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech’s Robotics
and Mechanisms Laboratory
(RoMeLa), explains, “We found
out that the ultimate customers
(the blind) want to drive the car, not be
driven.” So the researchers focused more
on how to convey a lot of information, in
real time, nonvisually, to a driver.
An undergraduate group, led by
mechanical engineering student Greg
Jannaman, designed a vehicle that
shares some architecture with the
school’s autonomous vehicle developed
for the DARPA Urban Challenge.
Both projects involve similar challenges
including perception, planning and
The dune-buggy-based test vehicle has
a laser rangefinder on the front and three
methods for providing data to the driver.
First, a tactile vest inside the driver’s
harness vibrates to indicate the presence and location of obstacles and the
safe speed to drive. Second, drivers are
guided through turns via an aural system
on the steering column, which provides
instructions to the driver through a pair
of headphones. The number of clicks
corresponds to the angle through which
the car needs to turn. Third, the “AirPix”
DID YOU KNOW?
Yi Wu, University of North Carolina
Our cells are ridiculously complex, containing a stew of proteins that can be turned on and off in order to alter the cell’s behavior. Researchers at the Uni- versity of North Carolina recently described an optical technique that manipulates
protein activity and location in living cells—which gives
researchers a new tool for studying the fundamentals of
protein function (Nature 461, 104). The technique makes
use of a derivative of a protein called Rac1 that can be
activated upon exposure to laser light; by manipulating the
protein, researchers can directly influence cell motility.
By activating a protein
called Rac (left),
the cell to protrude and
protein to the area.
system provides gusts of air in a 2-D
array near the user’s hands.
The team demonstrated a prototype
this summer. On the closed-course
driving tests, blind drivers outperformed
“I have no doubt that, with the
technologies we are developing, blind
drivers will someday be capable of safely
operating a vehicle on the roads,” Jannaman says. The technology does require
considerable further testing—and blind
drivers will have to overcome social and
The work could also benefit elderly
drivers with poor eyesight. Since the laser
system operates well in low visibility, it
could aid bad-weather driving. Haptic
interface systems could also help sighted
people to unload some information to
other senses. For example, airplanes
lean heavily on the pilot’s visual acuity.
Jannaman says, “Spreading the high-bandwidth information from the highly
saturated visual environment around to
the other senses will greatly increase a
pilot’s situational awareness.”
This school year, the RoMeLa team,
led by Kimberly Wenger, is developing a
high-bandwidth tactile map and incorporating lane detection into the vehicle.
Yvonne Carts-Powell ( email@example.com) is a
freelance science writer who specializes in optics