Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Sachin Pavithran, a visually impaired USU employee, shops with his dog Barstow and a robotic guide in May.

LOGAN — Visually impaired people may have an easier time shopping or finding their way around airports with the aid of a new device being developed at Utah State University.

The device is called the robotic guide. It looks somewhat like a large, flat vacuum cleaner and consists of a commercial robotic base, with a sensor that hones in on radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. The RFID tags can be placed discreetly in any indoor environment, such as areas of a grocery store.

The robotic guide is made from a PVC pipe structure with a handle for the user to hold onto and includes a basket to place grocery items in.

USU Professor Vladimir Kulyukin and four graduate students have spent the last 2 1/2 years working on the device, constantly changing and improving it. Recently, they added a portable barcode reader and changed the Braille dictionary used first to help the user locate their item to a voice menu. All the user has to do now is push any button on the keypad and they are put into a voice menu that will enable them to choose the item they are searching for.

All of the tests to date have been done at locally owned grocery store Lee's Marketplace. Kulyukin said store owner Lee Badger has been very accommodating in allowing the research team to put up RFID tags on the shelves and tape on the floor to guide the robot through the large open areas of the store without tags. One of the obstacles the team must overcome is finding other places to test it.

Sachin Pavithran, a visually impaired USU employee, has been a frequent test subject for the project. He has been party to its dramatic evolution, sometimes even suggesting changes or improvements.

"It's come a long ways in the two years since they've been working on it," he said. "Right now we have a more user-friendly navigation system to help blind people find the places they want to go. As far as performance, it's definitely improved drastically."

Pavithran says the device could help him be more independent by allowing him to grocery shop by himself or help him find his way around airports more easily. Normally, when he travels and has a long layover, all he can do is sit by the gate and wait because his guide dog Barstow can't lead him around a place she isn't familiar with. Grocery shopping requires the assistance of his wife or a store employee acting as a sighted guide.

"I hesitate to ask for too much help because I don't want to be too much of a burden. I can't shop around because I must know exactly what I'm looking for," Pavithran said. "This opens up a lot of options."

Kulyukin says the device is not intended to replace guide dogs.

"The device is supposed to complement the performance of guide dogs in an environment they can't do well in. Guide dogs don't perform well in environments that are changing all the time or that they are not familiar with. This device is supposed to help that," he said.

Funding for the research on the device has been provided from a five-year National Science Foundation career grant totalling nearly $500,000. Kulyukin has also received three USU Community University Research Initiative grants, given to promising research projects, totalling $60,000. To date, the project has cost in the neighborhood of $200,000.

Kulyukin doesn't have a time frame of when the robotic guide will be available to the public. It still has to go through several testing phases before it will be ready. He also emphasizes that it is not meant for home use but will instead be used only in retail and airport environments. Its estimated cost is between $5,000-$10,000.

E-mail: [email protected]