Senior Design stories: Robotic guiding device for the blind

It’s estimated by the Centers for Disease Control that more than 3.4 million Americans over the age of 40 are either legally blind or visually impaired. Living in a world without sight is a challenging and isolating experience. That’s what inspired one group of students at NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology and College of Education. They decided to come up with a solution to help people with blindness gain more mobility as their senior design capstone project.

Professor Gaylen Kapperman, of NIU’s College of Education who is legally blind himself, presented a challenge to the students to see if they could come up with a solution to help people who are blind better navigate through their environment.

“Humans do not have the ability to walk in a straight line, whether seeing-abled or blind,” said Kapperman. He said that there are currently only two guiding solutions for people with blindness: guide dogs and canes.

Each solution has its drawbacks. Canes require quite a bit of training and orientation to use effectively. Guide dogs can be effective but require extensive care and feeding and are costly. Because of this, only about 2% of people who are blind use guide dogs, according to the website guidingeyes.org.

“And neither of these solutions can keep someone from hitting their head on a low-hanging branch,” said Kapperman.

His challenge to the senior design team was this: develop a guiding device that requires no training or care. He described a device that could help the user find the shortest route to their destination using GPS, tell the user where they are, what’s ahead, and if there are any obstacles in their path. His ideal device would also be able to sense curbs or stairs and tell the user to step up or down – so the device would need to be light weight enough to be carried up or down stairs, too.

“I’ve been so impressed with their progress,” said Kapperman.

The interdisciplinary team, which consists of Karen Gonzalez, Devon Daubert, and Marko Kuljanin who are all mechanical engineering students at NIU’s Rock Valley College campus, along with Jacob Mrozek, an electrical engineering student and Daniel Ortiz, an illustration major with the NIU School of Art and Design are working on a three-dimensional CAD model. The team would have had a prototype made if the COVID-19 stay-at-home order had not been put into place.

“We are planning a virtual build which will include validation of every component of our project,” said Mrozek.  “By doing this we will hopefully set up someone in the future to build this project out and get it working.”

“My hope is that next year a senior design team can pick up where they left off and complete the prototype,” he said, adding that a product such as this could have tremendous benefit and improve the quality of life for so many persons with blindness.

The senior design program a year-long process where engineering students apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and work as a team to solve real-world problems for their capstone projects. They work for two semesters and typically would display their projects at the Senior Design Demonstration Day at the NIU Convocation Center. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has been converted to a virtual event that will be held Friday, May 8 from 1-4 p.m. online at go.niu.edu/SeniorDesignDay.

Marko Kuljanin
Karen Gonzalez
Daniel Ortiz
Devon Daubert
Jacob Mrozek
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