August 25, 2015      

We don’t normally write about industrial robots at Robotics Trends, we leave that up to our sister site Robotics Business Review. But this application using Rethink Robotics’ Baxter Research Robot is too awesome to pass on.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) TechBridgeWorld are using Baxter to explore how robots can help blind people and visually impaired more effectively navigate urban environments.

For people with sight, the necessary tasks associated with urban living – crossing the street, sorting bus tickets or finding the right storefront – are accomplished without a second thought. Innovations using collaborative robotics can make these tasks just as easy for the blind population.

“A lot of blind people, we learned, are afraid to explore unfamiliar areas just because of the ramifications of getting lost,” says M. Bernardine Dias, an associate research professor at CMU and founder of TechBridgeWorld. “So one of the things we’re looking at is how robots can be of help 20 years down the line.”

Watch the video below to see Baxter help a blind person distinguish between two different bus tickets. The tickets feel the same, but they look different. The person can’t see that, but Baxter can. The robot figures out what bus ticket is needed and slides it in front of the blind person, telling the person “I am sliding [the ticket] towards you. The bus ticket is now in front of you.”

But Dias says Baxter won’t be doing this alone. She envisions mobile robots that will lead a blind person to Baxter robots that will offer assistance with buying bus tickets or giving directions.

“We’re exploring [whether] a robot, like Baxter, give physical gesture-based directions along with its verbal directions,” Dias says. “And that helps them remember better how to get to a certain destination.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide.