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Michigan Students to Develop RFID-enabled Robotic Guide Dog

After developing an RFID-enabled cane, Central Michigan University students hope to use what they've learned to create a robot that can read EPC Gen 2 tags to guide the blind.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Sep 14, 2009A group of undergraduate engineering students at Central Michigan University have recently completed work on a prototype system designed to help guide blind people, and to help them avoid obstacles in their paths. The system employs RFID and ultrasonic technology incorporated into a cane that its developers hope will eventually result in a commercial product.

When devising technology for aiding the blind, says Kumar Yelamarthi, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Central Michigan University, the two major design criteria are to enhance a user's safety, and to provide a means for that individual to orient himself to his surroundings. To achieve these goals, an ultrasonic sensor for detecting objects in a user's path is mounted on the cane, near the handle. For navigation, an EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID reader and antenna, carried in a messenger bag, detects RFID tags embedded in the sidewalk.

The prototype Smart Cane, being tested by a volunteer
The messenger bag also houses a microcontroller that functions as the system's brain, connecting the RFID interrogator, the ultrasonic sensor, a keypad (used to program a walking route) and the RFID and ultrasonic sensors that guide the user or alert him to obstructions. The ultrasonic sensor on the cane effectively extends the cane's reach to roughly 8 feet, Yelamarthi says.

The RFID tags, embedded in the ground, serve as markers, enabling the system to determine a user's location. Thus far, Yelamarthi says, the system has been tested in a limited manner, with RFID tags placed throughout a confined area. Each volunteer tester used the keypad to enter a predetermined path into the microcontroller, strapped the messenger bag over his shoulder, picked up the cane and set off. As the tester moved through the area, the reader would detect any tags within 3 to 4 feet, transmitting each tag's ID number to the microcontroller. Based on the tag ID and the pre-set destination, the microcontroller provided a direction—either left or right—that was then conveyed to the user through an audio speaker mounted on the strap.

Whenever the volunteer approached an object in the cane's path, the ultrasonic sensor detected this item and the microcontroller would, in response, alert the volunteer to the obstruction via the speaker, along with directions for how to get past that object.

To aid those who are both blind and deaf, the students also created a glove wired to the microcontroller in the bag. The system triggers the glove to vibrate in a pattern that tells a user he is coming upon an obstruction, or that directs that person to make a left or right turn.

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