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NEWS
Blind Can Take Wheel With Virginia Tech Vehicle
July 20, 2009


Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind's Jernigan Institute, drives the Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge vehicle through an obstacle course of traffic cones on a campus parking lot. In the passenger seat is Greg Jannaman, who led the student team within the mechanical engineering department during the past year, and is monitoring the software of the vehicle.

A student team in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering is providing the blind with an opportunity many never thought possible: The opportunity to drive. A retrofitted four-wheel dirt buggy developed by the Blind Driver Challenge team from Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory uses laser range finders, an instant voice command interface and a host of other innovative, cutting-edge technology to guide blind drivers as they steer, brake, and accelerate. Although in the early testing stage, the National Federation of the Blind — which spurred the project — considers the vehicle a major breakthrough for independent living of the visually impaired.

“It was great!” said Wes Majerus, of Baltimore, the first blind person to drive the buggy on a closed course at the Virginia Tech campus earlier this summer. Mr. Majerus is an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, a research and training institute dedicated to developing technologies and services to help the blind achieve independence.

Sitting inside the vehicle, a blind driver can turn the steering wheel, stop and accelerate by following data from a computing unit that uses sensory information from the laser range finder serving as the ‘eyes’ of the driver, in addition to a combination of voice commands and a vibrating vest as guides. A member of the Virginia Tech student team sat next to Mr. Majerus in the passenger seat to monitor the system’s software operations.

Also driving the vehicle was Mark Riccobono, also of Baltimore, the executive director of the Jernigan Institute, who also is blind. He called his test drive historic. “This is sort of our going to the moon project,” he said.

The team will bring the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle to the National Federation of the Blind’s Youth Slam summer camp event held July 26th through August 1st in College Park, Md. There, the team hopes to have teenagers who would be obtaining their driver’s licenses, but cannot because of their blindness, drive the buggy.


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