U.S. Agency Plans Navigation System for the Blind

Vendors could win a contract worth half a million dollars to build the system, under a Small Business Innovation Research grant.
Published: July 2, 2008

I received an e-mail the other day from my buddy Ross Stapleton-Gray, founder and principle of Stapleton-Gray & Associates, a consulting firm focused on security, privacy, surveillance technologies and systems, and unique identifiers, including radio frequency identification. Ross referred me to the site of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which is seeking companies to help build an “Electronic Orientation and Navigation System for People with Visual Impairments.”

NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” It has a budget of more than $6 billion and funds approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

The U.S. government maintains an agency known as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), which aims to help smaller companies by steering research grants their way. The NSF navigation system for the blind is being run as an SBIR project. The winner of the $500,000 grant will “design, build and test a new type of orientation and navigation system for people with visual impairments.” The abstract notes that GPS-based solutions show promise for outdoor navigation, though there are no widespread navigation systems currently designed for use indoors.

The purpose of the research will be to complete the development of a new type of radio frequency identification system, “in which intelligent, variable-range active RFID beacons are programmed with information about their locations and placed through indoor environments like schools, shopping malls and museums. This information will be accessible to people with visual impairments via a small RFID receiver worn on the user’s belt. Information will be conveyed to the user via a text-to-speech interface. Results from field testing have demonstrated that the device helps people with visual impairments to navigate through an unfamiliar environment.”

To learn more about this research project, visit SBIR Phase II: Electronic Orientation and Navigation System for People with Visual Impairments.