Robots to guide blind?

Research project: Dr Jacques Penders and South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue's Neil Baugh with a pair of 'Guardian' robots.
Research project: Dr Jacques Penders and South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue's Neil Baugh with a pair of 'Guardian' robots.
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Guide dogs for the blind could be replaced by the Doctor Who’s K9 if researchers at Sheffield Hallam University get their way.

Scientists from the university have embarked on a research project, called REINS, which is backed by a £430,000 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant and aims to develop a semi-autonomous robot that can transmit its movement and other signals to a human handler through robotic reins.

Dr Jacques Penders, head of the Centre for Automation and Robotics Research (CARR) at Sheffield Hallam, said: “Humans naturally interact with animals using tactile feedback in scenarios such as working with guide dogs and horse riding.

“The REINS project aims to extend this practice to human and robot interaction. This is exciting because, if we succeed, we will be making the next step towards applying robots to everyday human purposes.

“Our project team will feature experts in design, engineering, robotics and communication to design a communicational interface that will allow for the on-the-spot-exercise of human judgement and creativity.”

“Direct human robot interaction is still in its infancy. However, it is essential that robots are introduced into daily human life. Currently, robots do not sufficiently enhance human confidence but we believe that this project has the scope to test this belief and enable the human to feel the robot’s movements and behaviour.”

The project team will also be working with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to test their developments in conditions where visibility is low.

A spokesperson for South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue said: “Being involved in these projects has made our officers better aware of available and up-coming technologies and directly helps us when evaluating new technology.”

The REINS project follows two other robotic projects involving Sheffield Hallam researchers, called Guardians and Viewfinders and funded by the European Union.

Guardians are a ‘swarm’ of autonomous robots with laser-range, radio-signal and ultrasound sensors that are designed to navigate and search buildigns like warehouses and factories and could help search and rescue teams at large scale incidents such as warehouse fires and chemical spills. Viewfinders were designed to autonomously navigate and inspect an area, but could also have their actions monitored and controlled by human operators.