Yantao Shen, a biomedical engineering researcher at Nevada University, demonstrates an early computer model of the new technology

Robot hand to assist the blind

A hand worn device to allow blind and visually impaired people to navigate past objects is being developed by researchers from the universities of Nevada, Reno and Arkansas.

The glove-like device will assist in avoiding obstacles and improve the user’s ability to pre-locate, pre-sense and grasp an object.

The technology will combine vision, tactile, force, temperature and audio sensors and actuators to give the wearer a sense of an object’s location, shape and size.

"The miniaturised system will contribute to the lives of visually impaired people by enabling them to identify and move objects, both for navigational purposes or for more simple things such as grasping a door handle or picking up a glass," said lead researcher Professor Yantao Shen with the University of Nevada.

"We will pre-map the hand, and build a lightweight form-fitting device that attaches to the hand using key locations for cameras and mechanical and electrical sensors. It will be simpler than a glove, and less obtrusive."

Shen said that while high resolution cameras will be used to detect nearby objects and obstacles, the multiple sensors and touch actuators will help to dynamically 'describe' the shape of the object to the hand when it is close to the object.

Although the technology is primarily being developed as an aid for the blind, it is touted as having great potential in advancing small and wearable robot autonomy. The potential applications could span space exploration, military surveillance, law enforcement and search and rescue.

"This is a major nationally competitive project that will result in cutting-edge research," said another member of the research team, Professor Manos Maragakis.

"It is a big success for Dr. Shen and clear evidence of the continuous growth of our biomedical engineering and autonomous systems programs, which have become major areas of focus for the College of Engineering."

Japanese researchers recently unveiled an assistive suit that contains pneumatic muscles to help the elderly move around.

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