Veterans Affairs

Smart cane

Device for blind adds modern sensing and guidance technology to the common white cane and greatly broadens a user's independence

Medical & Biotechnology

A researcher at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recently developed a cane for use by blind individuals (or those visually impaired) which incorporates various sensors and processors to aid in navigation and safety while walking. The patented technology is available via patent license agreement to companies that would make, use, or sell it commercially.

The white cane is a globally recognized tool used by the blind for navigating their surroundings. The use of such canes – while not necessarily white – dates back centuries and has changed little in the past 75 years – a time when the world has seen a tremendous number of technical innovations that could enhance its utility.

Visually impaired persons typically walk with a white cane in order to feel the space immediately in front of them. The user swings the cane in a three-foot arc sufficient to cover the width of one’s body at the shoulders. The tool is vital to extending the independence of the visually impaired.

Recently, VA researcher and visually impaired person, Brian Higgins, greatly improved on the capability of the white cane while keeping its proven and accepted form factor. The new smart cane includes LIDAR and ultrasound sensors capable of detecting objects in front of the user as well as objects at heights from ground level to well above the height of the user.

The distal end of the cane is in contact with the ground by a motorized wheel. The smart cane is not intended to be moved in front of the user in an arc similar to other canes but rather travels a GPS predetermined course or is guided by the movements of the user along his or her path. Sensor data can inform the user to change course by auditory cues or vibration in the handle or can direct the cane to steer automatically.

This technology brings the object sensing and vehicle control advancements we are seeing in autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles to the more than 1 million Americans and 39 million individuals the world over who are legally blind. We have these systems in toys for children. It’s time we had them in the hands of the blind.

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