That is the aim of a project at the University of Glasgow, which is working with industry and two leading charities to develop the RoboGuide, an AI-powered four-legged robot. The ‘chatty’ robot guide dog could help visually impaired people move more independently through museums, shopping centres, hospitals and other public places.
The RoboGuide prototype integrates a range of cutting-edge technologies into an off-the-shelf robot body, aiming to help overcome the challenges preventing robots from being more widely used to assist blind and partially sighted people.
The project hopes to bring a more complete version of the technology to market, to help support the 2.2bn people around the world – including 2m people in the UK – who live with sight loss.
“Assistive technologies like the RoboGuide have the potential to provide blind and partially sighted people with more independence in their daily lives in the years to come,” said principal investigator Dr Olaoluwa Popoola.
“One significant drawback of many current four-legged, two-legged and wheeled robots is that the technology which allows them to find their way around can limit their usefulness as assistants for the visually impaired.
“Robots which use GPS to navigate, for example, can perform well outdoors, but often struggle in indoor settings, where signal coverage can weaken. Others, which use cameras to ‘see’, are limited by line of sight, which makes it harder for them to safely guide people around objects or around bends.”
The RoboGuide system uses sensors mounted on the robot’s exterior to accurately map and assess its surroundings. Software developed by the team helps it learn the optimal routes between locations, and to interpret the sensor data in real-time to help it avoid the many moving obstacles it might encounter while guiding a human.
It also incorporates large language model (LLM) technology, similar to ChatGPT, giving it the ability to understand questions and comments from users and provide verbal responses in return.
The Forth Valley Sensory Centre (FVSC) Trust and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Scotland are supporting development of the RoboGuide.
In December, it was tested for the first time with volunteers from FVSC and RNIB at the Hunterian, Scotland’s oldest museum. The RoboGuide helped the volunteers find their way around the first floor of the university-run museum, and provided interactive spoken guidance on six exhibits.
Dr Wasim Ahmad, co-investigator on the project, said: “Ultimately, our aim is to develop a complete system which can be adapted for use with robots of all shapes and sizes to help blind and partially sighted people in a wide range of indoor situations. We hope that we can create a robust commercial product which can support the visually impaired wherever they might want extra help.”
Jacquie Winning MBE, chief executive of FVSC, said: “Mobility is a big issue for the blind and partially sighted community. RoboGuide is a wonderful solution to that problem, and we are delighted to help test this innovative and creative robot.
“We are pleased to play our part in helping to harness the power of new technology to improve the independence and confidence of people with sensory loss and make sure they can live their lives to the full.”
The nine-month research project is supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UKRI, through the Impact Acceleration Account programme.
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