Spotlight on Research
Smart Cane gives a new direction

Students create device to help visually impaired

Engineering students are tapping into technology to help improve the safety of people who are visually impaired.

Through a project coordinated by assistant professor of engineering Kumar Yelamarthi, the group of students created the Smart Cane. This new device uses two types of technology – ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles and Radio Frequency Identification technology to recognize location-navigation cues. The RFID system is similar to that used by some major retailers to tag merchandise and prevent theft.

"This was a preliminary effort that I believe will pave the way for future projects and ultimately result in a device that will help the visually impaired move with the same ease and confidence as a sighted person," says Grayling senior Wil Martin.

The Smart Cane has received national and worldwide attention through news coverage in various media such as The Boston Herald, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Yahoo! News and MSNBC.

Yelamarthi says this project started as a way to teach students to see and understand the ways that engineering can be used for the greater good.

"We wanted to do something that would help people and make our campus more accessible," he says. "We are among the first to research the use of RFID technology outdoors, and we're very excited about what this project will lead to."

The Smart Cane has an ultrasonic sensor mounted on it and is paired with a messenger-style shoulder bag. A miniature navigational system inside the bag works with the Smart Cane to detect RFID tags placed a key locations along pathways.

A speaker located on the bag strap sounds an alert when an obstacle is detected and informs the user which direction to move. For those who cannot hear, the students created a glove that uses sensors to vibrate different fingertips providing an alert or direction.

The students placed RFID tags across CMU's Mount Pleasant campus and tested the system with volunteers who found it to be effective, especially for navigation.

"I'm really excited to be working on this project," says Midland junior Julie Mitchell. "In the U.S. alone there are more than 1 million people who are visually impaired. I really believe this technology will one day make a big difference."

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