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College of Engineering students bring the Blind Driver Challenge to Daytona

A team of graduate and undergraduate students from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering helped make history Jan. 29, 2011, at Daytona International Speedway.

As part of the ongoing Blind Driver Challenge, a blind man drove a 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on 1.5 miles of the famed course during the three-day Rolex 24 race extravaganza. At a top speed of 27 mph, Mark Riccobono, an executive with the National Federation of the Blind, steered through a set of obstacles that included barrels, randomly thrown cardboard boxes, and a moving vehicle. High-tech hardware developed by Hokies, past and present, assisted the driver.

   

Mark Riccobono operates the Blind Driver Challenge car as part of a public demonstration at Daytona International Speedway. Mark Riccobono operates the Blind Driver Challenge car as part of a public demonstration at Daytona International Speedway.

The 10-minute trip caps years of research engineering work by College of Engineering students led by Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory and associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“As Mark arrived safely at the finish line, hugging his wife with tears in his eyes, I couldn’t help but also cry,” Hong said. “I asked Mark if he could give me a ride back to my hotel. He is blind, but I knew he could see the big smile on my face.”

The project’s history

In 2004, the National Federation of the Blind, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Baltimore, put forth the Blind Driver Challenge to create technology that one day could allow a blind person to safely and reliably drive an automobile.  

   

From left: College of Engineering doctoral student Paul D’Angio, master’s student Ryan Colby, and Associate Professor Dennis Hong talk before the Daytona demonstration. From left: College of Engineering doctoral student Paul D’Angio, master’s student Ryan Colby, and Associate Professor Dennis Hong talk before the Daytona demonstration.

Virginia Tech was the only university and research institution to take up the call. Work began in earnest in 2006. Within three years, undergraduate engineering students built a prototype buggy that used laser range finders to scan the surrounding environment and relay information back to the driver via a variety of new non-visual interface technologies.

The buggy publicly debuted at the federation’s Youth Slam summer camp in College Park, Md., in July 2009.

From there, work began on the second-generation vehicles, highway-ready cars that could conceivably be used on the open road.

New technology

Virginia Tech enlisted the help of TORC Technologies, a company founded by College of Engineering alumni and based at the university’s Corporate Research Center. TORC had an essential ingredient: ByWire XGV technology that can be integrated with a vehicle, in this case two Ford Escape Hybrids. The technology provides reliable and safe electronic control of the vehicle and gives it the capability to be stopped remotely, among other modifications.

Engineering students designed the non-visual interface devices blind drivers use to operate the vehicle. The hardware includes gloves called DriveGrips and a seat cushion called SpeedStrip. Both vibrate certain cues that indicate directions to accelerate or halt, turn right or left. The vehicles can “see” obstacles and the road ahead through strategically placed laser range finders and cameras.

“Through the help of technology and ingenuity, the possibilities for the blind are limitless,” said Matt Dowden, a College of Engineering graduate research assistant from Falls Church, Va., who originated DriveGrip while an undergraduate. “This project, from the original concept to the dune buggy to the highway-ready SUVs has always been and always will be about breaking barriers.”

Daytona debut

On Jan. 28, the eve of the Rolex 24, Riccobono for the first time was able to drive his family around a parking lot in one of the SUVs. With his wife, who is also blind, in the passenger seat and his two children strapped in the back, Riccobono drove the SUV, dodging traffic islands and other obstacles.

“This really hit home for me as my goal is to use engineering to help people overcome life’s toughest challenges,” said Paul D’Angio, a mechanical engineering doctoral student from Basking Ridge, N.J.

The next day, Riccobono drove the track. He took an 18-degree bank, steered through white barrels, navigated around cardboard boxes thrown from the back of a van, and then passed the van. A track announcer called out every move.

   

His 1.5-mile demonstration drive completed, a visibly proud and emotional Mark Riccobono steps outside the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle to greet reporters, family and fellow members of the National Federation of the Blind. His 1.5-mile demonstration drive completed, a visibly proud and emotional Mark Riccobono steps outside the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle to greet reporters, family, and fellow members of the National Federation of the Blind.

“People asked me what are you going to say, and I had some things in mind of what I was going to say,” Riccobono said afterward. “But for me the moment spoke for itself, there were no words, even words that I conjure up ahead of time that would fit the moment.”

D’Angio was in the van, dropping the boxes that the SUV dodged. “We made a large amount of practice runs, so during the actual track run we were focused on performing our individual tasks,” he said. “Once the vehicle came to a stop however, screams of celebration echoed throughout the lead vehicle ... after eight months of work we had finally done it!”

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

The SUVs in action

    The College of Engineering has two new Blind Driver Challenge vehicles. This one is BRIAN, which stands for xxx.
  • See a video of the car on the track at Daytona
  • See a video of the January 2011 test and explanation of the newest Blind Driver Challenge vehicle
  • See a video about the features of the vehicle
  • See a video about the advancing technology behind the vehicle
  • See a video of the first challenge vehicle -- a four-wheel drive dune buggy -- in action
  • See pictures from the trip to Daytona

Work continues to advance, adapt blind driver technology

What's next for the project? The College of Engineering's Blind Driver Challenge team plans to continue to hone the new technology and meet the goal of the effort: develop a car that can be driven by a blind person independently.

By the numbers

About the Daytona International Speedway event

  • 1.5: Miles driven by Mark Riccobono during the demonstration
  • 2: Honks made while passing another moving vehicle
  • 4: Racing turns negotiated by Riccobono
  • 5: Sensors, including laser range finders and computer vision cameras, used to detect obstacles and the road
  • 7: Number of months spent developing next-generation vehicles
  • 8: Obstacles avoided
  • 18: Degrees of bank Riccobono negotiated while driving the outer loop
  • 27: Top speed in miles per hour reached
  • 400: National Federation of the Blind members in attendance

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