Visual impairment: Researchers develop AI-powered robot guide dog

The University of Glasgow, in partnership with industry and charitable organizations, has developed RoboGuide, an AI-powered four-legged robot designed to assist visually impaired individuals in navigating museums, shopping centres, hospitals, and other public spaces, potentially enhancing their independence in the future.

The RoboGuide prototype incorporates a range of cutting-edge technologies aimed at addressing challenges that have hindered the widespread adoption of robots for assisting blind and partially sighted individuals.

The ultimate aim is to introduce a more comprehensive version of this technology to the market in the future and to provide support to the 2.2 billion people worldwide, including two million in the UK, who are living with sight loss.

The Forth Valley Sensory Centre (FVSC) Trust and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Scotland are actively involved in supporting the development of RoboGuide.

“Our assistive technology project for the visually impaired embodies innovation, fostering inclusivity. In Glasgow, we’re pioneering world-changing technologies that hold the potential to transform lives and reshape societal norms. This achievement was made possible through collaboration with industry and charity partners and co-creating the design with the invaluable input of end users,” said Prof. Muhammad Imran, co-investigator on the project.

“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.

“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 that 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,” said Dr. Olaoluwa Popoola, the RoboGuide project’s principal investigator.

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The RoboGuide system employs sensors to map and assess its surroundings in real-time, enabling it to navigate obstacles. Utilizing developed software on the Unitree Go1 quadruped, it learns optimal routes between destinations. Additionally, it incorporates language model technology to understand and respond to user queries.

In December 2023, RoboGuide underwent testing with volunteers from FVSC and RNIB at the Hunterian, Scotland’s oldest museum. The robot assisted volunteers in navigating the museum’s first floor and offered interactive spoken guidance on six exhibits.

“Ultimately, our aim is to develop a complete system that 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 that can support the visually impaired wherever they might want extra help,” said Dr. Wasim Ahmad of the James Watt School of Engineering, a co-investigator on the project.

While real guide dogs are costly and require extensive training, not all of them are suitable for visually impaired individuals. In contrast, robotic guide dogs offer numerous advantages, including reduced costs, increased efficiency, and broader accessibility.

The innovation has the potential to revolutionize the assistance provided to visually impaired individuals, surpassing the constraints of traditional guide dogs and facilitating greater freedom and mobility.

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