Robotic Dogs Guide the Blind: The Future of Fetching

Scott Jung Senior Editor, MedGadget
dog and owner

For many, a dog is more than a best friend — it’s a life line. As part of International Assistance Dog Week, we honor not only the dogs that faithfully guide the visually impaired to greater independence, but also the work they inspire.

Because guide dogs can be costly to train and keep, and can’t go everywhere (they’re often banned in certain living situations, such as facilities for patients who are highly susceptible to bacterial diseases), doctors around the world are developing robots and wearable technology that can.

NSK, a Japanese electronics company, has collaborated with the University of Electro-Communications (UEC) since 2009 on a series of guide robots. Early versions looked like a futuristic trashcan on wheels, a kind of real-life R2-D2 droid. Two years later, NSK debuted the NR 003, which looks less like a droid and is far more technologically advanced.

Like its canine counterpart, the NR 003 has four robotic legs, with each leg containing a set of wheels on which it actually moves. Amazingly, each leg is capable of moving, allowing the robot to climb stairs when needed. Its single “eye” consists of Microsoft Kinect sensors that help it identify and navigate obstacles and stairs. The NR 003 also has “paws on its legs that contain bumper sensors that also help it avoid obstacles.

And, like real guide dogs, the NR 003 has voice recognition. It can receive verbal instructions from users and, unlike a real dog, responds back in words.

Beyond the NR 003, many assistive technologies are being incorporated into wearable devices that further empower visually-impaired users.

New York-based Tactile Navigation Tools is developing a vest that uses sensors to detect obstacles and can alert the wearer to them with vibrations. Dubbed the Eyeronman, the device is equipped with LIDAR (short for Light Detection and Ranging, a technology that uses lasers to measure distance), ultrasound and infrared sensors to help detect obstacles 360 degrees around the wearer. When the sensors detect an obstacle nearby, part of the vest will vibrate.

In the United Kingdom, Oxford University neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Hicks is testing a pair of high-tech smart glasses that work by enhancing the residual vision left in patients affected by diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

The glasses capture video and increase the contrast of important objects, such as potential obstacles, to make them stand out more. One case study participant, 43-year-old Iain Cairns, who has only central vision left in both eyes due to the retinal degenerative disease choroideremia, tried on the glasses. According to Oxford University, Cairns said what he saw compared to “Lord of the Rings when he puts the ring on … like I’ve wandered into an ’80s’ pop video.” Still, the glasses show promise in helping visually-impaired users navigate on their own. Cairns noted that they could really help with the day-to-day challenges he faces.

Erik Weihenmayer

Then there’s Erik Weihenmayer, whom we profiled earlier this year for his love of adventure despite being blind. Weihenmayer was born with a condition called retinoschisis that left him fully blind by the age of 13. To get around his loss of vision, he trained and fine-tuned his other remaining senses, and used a number of high-tech tools. One notable technology is the BrainPort, a device that converts images on a video camera into an “image” that he feels on his tongue. As a result of rigorous training and testing, Weihenmayer can use the BrainPort to play with his daughter, grab himself a hot cup of coffee and read posted signs.

And thanks in part to the BrainPort, Weihenmayer has successfully reached the peaks of the Seven Summits, including Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world.

While robots and wearable devices don’t look, bark or snuggle like dogs, the guide dogs we salute this week and the assistive technology they’ve inspired have something very important in common: both help the visually impaired lead more independent lives.

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