It’s the Network: Class Project Leads to Wireless Navigation System for the Blind

Posted: November 3, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Bijian Jabbari, Neda and x
Prof. Bijan Jabbari and students Neda Behrooz and Nikhil Bhagwat examine a wireless guide for the blind that the students created. Behrooz and Bhagwat earned their undergraduate degrees last May and are now in the electrical engineering master’s program at Mason.

By Jennifer Edgerly

When electrical engineering students Neda Behrooz, Nikhil Bhagwat and Victor Zapata had to decide on a senior design project, they all agreed to create something that would improve the quality of life for others.

Having previously taken a robotics course together, Behrooz and Bhagwat started talking about using robots to help physically handicapped people.

While reviewing the suggested topics for the advanced senior design project course (ECE 492/493), they came across the perfect task – creating a wireless guide for helping the blind.

The idea behind the project came from Bijan Jabbari, professor of electrical and computer engineering and faculty adviser to the group. The project’s purpose was for students to use wireless technology and sensors to design a guiding system for the blind. The students began investigating models that could effectively help sight-impaired people and designing a useful system to assist them.

Adding to the Stock of Tools for the Visually Impaired

Victor Zapata
Victor Zapata, who also worked on the student team, joined Abraxas Corporation after graduating.
Photo courtesy of Victor Zapata

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, more than 10 million people in North America are visually impaired. The most common tools used to increase the mobility of the visually impaired are white canes and guide dogs. However, there has been little technological advancement to assist the lives of the blind and visually impaired.

Behrooz, Bhagwat and Zapata, who graduated from Mason in May, worked closely with Jabbari and ultimately created a prototype cane that they would like to see developed further and made accessible to people with visual impairments.

Using the typical white cane, the trio implemented both an obstacle detection function – using two infrared sensors and one sonar sensor – as well as a wireless guide that locates and guides the user in an unknown environment.

close-up of cane

“The primary goal of the obstacle detection module on the cane is to inform the user about any obstacles in his or her path,” says Behrooz. “By using the two infrared sensors, and a sonar sensor, we are able to detect solid objects such as walls, but it can detect uneven surfaces, such as stairs, as well. The sonar sensor also identifies objects not found using infrared, such as glass doors.”

Using a combination of commercially available software and hardware, the cane’s infrared and sonar sensors send data to a microcontroller. The microcontroller is programmed to process the information, allowing it to recognize the obstacles. Once the obstacles are detected and recognized, the information is sent to a voice chip containing pre-recorded messages. Those messages are then communicated through a speaker to the user, alerting them to the obstacle ahead.

Realizing the Potential of Wireless Technology

Another part of the project was the creation of a wireless navigation guide. As building layouts and floor plans are more commonly mapped and uploaded to databases, such repositories, along with positioning technology, open up the possibility of assisting the sight impaired as well. This was one of Jabbari’s original objectives. For this particular project, the group was able to access a database containing a map of the second floor of the Science and Technology II building on the Fairfax Campus.

full-length view of cane
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Employing WiFi, the wireless guide (using a handheld device such as a PDA) connects to the database with the map of the building. Using a localization technique, the system finds the visually impaired individual within the building and identifies the location of restrooms, elevators and offices as the individual nears them.

“Based on our goals, this project was definitely a success. It not only increased the mobility and navigation of the blind and visually impaired, but it kept their safety as a high priority,” says Bhagwat. “While the cane was 100 percent functional when the project ended, there were definitely more modifications that could be made in order to increase its range and accuracy.”

After graduating in May, Behrooz and Bhagwat spent their summer working on modifications for the cane – including making it more compact and lightweight and adding a sensor for detecting head-level obstacles.

Behrooz and Bhagwat have returned to Mason to pursue master’s degrees in electrical engineering. Bhagwat is also working as a graduate research assistant in Jabbari’s Communications and Networking Laboratory. Following graduation, Zapata accepted a position as a technology development engineer with Abraxas Corporation in Herndon, Va.

“The wireless guide for assisting the visually impaired project is a vivid example of the societal application of wireless networks where there are significant opportunities to help improve the quality of life or the emergency response operation,” says Jabbari. “In my view, such real-life applications in wireless technology have the potential to help revitalize our economy, and in particular that of Northern Virginia, in the next decade.”

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