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NIH-Funded Modern “White Rod” Brings 21st Century Navigational Aid

By on September 8, 2021 0

Press release

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The robotic cane with 3D camera can accurately guide the user to the chosen location, avoiding obstacles.

Equipped with a color 3D camera, inertial measurement sensor and its own on-board computer, a recently improved robotic cane could offer blind and visually impaired users a new way to navigate indoors. When paired with the architectural drawing of a building, the device can accurately guide a user to a desired location with sensory and auditory cues, while simultaneously helping the user avoid obstacles such as boxes, furniture and overhangs. Development of the device was co-funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI) of the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Details of the updated design were published in the IEEE / CAA Journal of Automatica Sinica.

“Many people in the visually impaired community consider the white cane to be their best and most functional navigation tool, despite being a century-old technology,” said Cang Ye, Ph.D., author. principal of the study and professor of computer science. at the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “For sighted people, technologies such as GPS-based applications have revolutionized navigation. We are interested in creating a device that fills many functionality gaps for white cane users.

While there are mobile phone-based apps that can provide navigation aid – helping blind users stay in crosswalks, for example – large spaces inside buildings are a major challenge. , especially when these spaces are unfamiliar. Earlier versions of Ye’s robotic cane began to tackle this problem by incorporating floor plans of buildings; the user could tell the cane if he wanted to go, and the cane – through a combination of auditory cues and a robotic rolling tip – could guide the user to their destination. But when used over long distances, inaccuracies in user location can build up, ultimately leaving the user in an incorrect location.

To help correct this problem, Ye and his colleagues added a color depth camera to the system. Using infrared light, much like a cell phone’s front camera, the system can determine the distance between the cane and other physical objects, including the ground, things like doors and doors. walls, as well as furniture and other obstacles. Using this information, along with data from an inertial sensor, the cane’s on-board computer can map the user’s precise location with the existing architectural drawing or floor plan, while alerting the user obstacles in his way.

“While some cell phone apps can give people aural navigation instructions, like when you turn a corner, how do you know you’ve made the right amount? Ye said. “The rolling tip of our robotic cane can guide you to turn just the right place and exactly the right number of degrees, whether it’s 15 degrees or 90. This version can also alert you to overhanging obstacles, what a white cane does. standard can not do. “

There are still a few issues to be addressed before the system is ready for the market – it’s still too heavy for regular use, for example, and Ye’s team is looking for a way to fine-tune the device. Nonetheless, with the ability to easily switch between its automated mode and a simpler, non-robotic “white cane mode”, Ye believes this device could provide a key independence tool for the blind and visually impaired, without losing the features of the white cane. that have stood the test of time.

The study was funded by NEI and NIBIB through grant EB018117.

NEI leads federal government research on the visual system and eye disease. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs to develop vision-saving treatments and meet the special needs of people with vision loss. For more information visit

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH):The NIH, the national agency for medical research, comprises 27 institutes and centers and is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The NIH is the principal federal agency that conducts and supports basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and studies the causes, treatments, and cures for common and rare diseases. For more information about the NIH and its programs, visit

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The references

Zhang H, Jin LQ, Ye C. “An RGB-D Camera-Based Visual Positioning System for Robotic Navigation Aid Assisted Navigation”, IEEE / CAA J. Autom. Sinica. 2021. 8 (8): 1389-1400. doi: 10.1109 / JAS.2021.1004084


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