Virginia Tech students engineer vehicle that enables blind drivers to take the wheel

Not every teenager who turns 16 gets to have a driver’s license. But a group of blind and low-vision youth had the chance to drive a retrofitted buggy designed by Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory  (RoMeLa) team on July 31, 2009, in College Park, Md.
   

Ishaan Rostogi, a 15-year-old participant in the Youth Slam camp, was the first youth to drive the Blind Driver Challenge car. Interviewed by multiple by reporters after his drive, he said the vehicle gives him hope that one day he could earn a driver’s license. Ishaan Rostogi, a 15-year-old participant in the Youth Slam camp, was the first youth to drive the Blind Driver Challenge car. Interviewed by multiple by reporters after his drive, he said the vehicle gives him hope that one day he could earn a driver’s license.

About 20 teens strapped into a safety control harness, put on earphones, and after brief instructions from a RoMeLa instructor, took the wheel of the red, four-wheeled vehicle. Most smiled as they crossed a parking lot, cutting figure eights and rounding large circles as camera crews and photographers looked on. The youth said it was an opportunity they never thought possible.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Ishaan Rostogi, 15, from New Jersey. “It’s going to be a great experience in the future for all blind people across America.” He said the drive now gives him hope that one day he could earn his driver’s license. This, he said, is something he never before thought possible.

Rostogi was part of the week-long National Federation of the Blind’s Youth Slam camp. Hosted by the University of Maryland, the camp brought together blind youth from across the United States who are interested in science, engineering, and technology. Joining the camp from Virginia Tech were recent alum Greg Jannaman, rising senior Kimberly Wenger, and RoMeLa director Dennis Hong, an associate professor with the College of Engineering.

   

This laser sensor, mounted on front of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle, operates similar to sonar. This laser sensor, mounted on front of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle, operates similar to sonar. It sends out a laser beam that will bounce back to the device as it hits an obstacle. The sensor then figures out the distance to the obstacle by measuring the time of flight of the laser beam. As the laser sweeps the environment, the computer constructs a map of all obstacles around the vehicle.

Throughout the week, the RoMeLa team helped camp attendees build remote-controlled mousetrap model cars, learn to change a tire, and explore the various components of an automobile’s engine, said Wenger, a rising senior from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., majoring in mechanical engineering. She will lead the Blind Driver Challenge team at RoMela during the 2009-2010 academic year.

The July 31 date was an important one for the Blind Driver Challenge team. It was the National Federation of the Blind that pitched the idea in 2004, challenging an American university to design a vehicle that would allow a blind person to drive with the same freedom as would a sighted person. Virginia Tech was the only university to take on the challenge, and went through many incarnations before arriving at the current model.

“Seeing the students’ reactions after they drove the vehicle truly made this entire project worth it,” Wenger said. “Every single student came out of the car smiling and some were even jumping up and down from excitement. … Their five-minute ride in the car was not a joy ride; it was a glimpse into a future of a more independent life.”

   

Kim Wenger (left), a rising senior majoring in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, explains the technology of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle to a Youth Slam participant. Wenger will head the BDC student team this coming academic year. Kim Wenger (left), a rising senior majoring in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, explains the technology of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle to a Youth Slam participant. Wenger will head the BDC student team this coming academic year.

Work between Virginia Tech and the National Federation of the blind will continue.

“We are glad that students at our second Youth Slam, in addition to being exposed to the National Federation of the Blind’s positive philosophy of blindness and other areas of scientific study, had the opportunity to test drive the vehicle and provide input to the student engineers who created it,” said Mark Riccobono, executive director of the nonprofit’s Jernigan Institute.

Riccobono test drove the vehicle himself in May at the Blacksburg, Va., campus of Virginia Tech.

Since the July 31 event and resulting media coverage, Hong and his student team say they have been flooded with requests from the blind and visually challenged, wanting to test drive the vehicle or help develop it.

“You have absolutely no idea, unless you are blind, what hope these type of inventions give blind [people],” wrote Holly Case of Wyoming, Del., whose husband is blind. “He and I would love to see this work.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at (540) 231-4787

By the numbers

  • 1.3 million: Legally blind people in the United States
  • 93,600: School-age children
  • 10,800: Deaf and blind school-age children
  • 787,691: Blind seniors, 65 and older
  • 2.4 million: Projected number of blind seniors by 2030
  • 30 percent: Number of employed working-age legally blind adults
  • $916,000: Cost of support and unpaid taxes for one blind person’s lifetime
  • $4 billion: Estimated annual costs of blindness to the federal government

Source: National Federation of the Blind

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