American researchers have developed an entirely autonomous robot capable of guiding partially and non-sighted humans around obstacles and in confined spaces. In the future, the new invention could provide a robotic alternative to traditional guide dogs for the blind.
Drawing on innovative technologies, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States have built a robot that is fully autonomous in an urban environment. Designed to take on the role of a traditional guide dog, the new invention can lead a visually impaired human holding its leash. Unlike previous robots for the blind, this latest prototype can navigate around obstacles and cope with confined spaces.
To perceive its surroundings, the the robot is equipped with a system of range-finding lasers. It also has a rotating camera that follows its visually impaired master or mistress to determine their position. In practice, the device functions like a GPS navigation aid, which a user programs with a point of departure and a destination. Thereafter the robot calculates the distance it needs to cover as well as its future movements. While on the road, it continues to adapt its behavior to take into account the location and trajectory of the person being guided.
The new robot dog is currently very expensive to produce, but the researchers are hoping that that it will soon become affordable. Robotic guide dogs also have a key advantage over real-life canines. As Zhongyu Li explains, "With the help of a robot guide dog, we can transfer our code directly from one robot to another". In contrast to training for traditional guide dogs, which is costly and time consuming, the behavior of robot dogs can be instantly improved by updating their programming.
The research team also plans to make it possible to synchronize the robot dog with navigation software on smartphones and computers. "Our robot dog has a way of intelligence about navigation, from point A to point B," explains one of the researchers, Zhongyu Li, in the New Scientist. "A real dog knows nothing about navigating. This is an advantage of our dog."