Daily Management Review

Assistive Drone to Help the Blind Run - and Many More


A researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, has designed a drone that can assist blind athletes run without any other human aid.

The researcher hopes that someday soon, this technology would also allow blind people to walk around without human help.
A prototype drone system that guides blind runners around a track has been designed and built by Eelke Folmer, an associate professor of computer science and the head of UNR’s Human Plus Lab. The drone would also allow blind athletes to exercise independently without a sighted guide.
Folmer’s quadcopter flies at eye level, about 10 feet ahead of a runner, guiding them by sound. The drone is equipped with two cameras — a downward-facing one that follows the lines on a track and a separate camera that focuses on a marker on the runner’s shirt. The speed of the drone is self adjusted to correspond to the speed of the blind runner
However the university being so close to the Reno airport and due to the consequent FAA regulations on drones that is applicable, the researcher has not been able to test it outdoors yet. To conduct the outdoor trials, Folmer is currently seeking permission from the airport’s radio tower to override the rule.
“We’ve done some very simple trials inside just following a straight line and it seemed to work. I’m not sure how it’s going to be on a real oval where you also have to go through a turn,” Folmer says.
There are few technologies that are aimed to help the visually impaired tackle fitness and obesity even as a number of assistive devices for navigation and communication abound. The lack of assistive technologies for the blind to exercise and stay fit is criticized to disproportionately impact the disabled community.
According to research published in the ‘American Journal of Preventive Medicine”, about one in three able-bodied adults in the U.S. are considered obese or extremely obese. However the rate is higher at one in two among disabled adults.
Doing vigorous activities — the kind that actually burns calories and build muscle — can be tough for the people who have mobility, navigation or vision impairments.
Folmer has also designed another device that is aimed specifically on increasing accessibility to moderate and vigorous exercise for the visually impaired. The VI Fit is a series of video-less video games that have been created for blind children, developed for the PC platform. A Nintendo Wii controller is used to track motion in each of the three fitness games. This helps to guide visually impaired players through bowling, tennis, or whack-a-mole style play using audio and tactile cues.
 “Most of the accessibility research [for the blind] focuses more on things like screen readers and making the Web more accessible. The community of blind people still has major problems pertaining to health, socialization, and quality of life. It would be more helpful for this demographic if we research how technology can improve these issues,” Folmer says.
Eyes-Free Yoga, a system that uses a Microsoft Kinect to guide visually impaired users through yoga workouts, has been designed by Kyle Rector, a graduate computer science and engineering student at the University of Washington. The system allows a blind person to adjust their bodies for proper form directed by voice commands that follow step-by-step verbal instructions and real-time feedback.
 “My system isn’t necessarily intended to be used as the only exercise tool for the rest of their lives, but it is a way to kind of propel [blind users] to do more activity,” Rector says.