The Bot Leading the Blind: High-Tech Mechanical Guide Dog

If we were ever in need of a service animal we’d probably get a monkey or one of those tiny ponies, but apparently not everyone likes having an animal around the house. To help out people who could benefit from a service animal but don’t want to take care of a live one, Japanese engineers NSK have developed a quadruped robot that looks a bit like a biological dog. The robot performs the duties of a service dog for visually impaired people without the needs for bathroom breaks or socializing.

There are other benefits to using robots instead of dogs. Training service dogs is a costly and lengthy process, and the trained dogs typically can’t work for more than 10 years. The supply of service dogs is almost never enough to meet the need, despite ongoing efforts to train more qualified dogs.

This robotic guide has a total of eight wheels on its “feet,” allowing it to glide along in most situations. But when it needs to go up stairs or navigate other obstacles, the legs are able to bend and move. The handle that the user holds onto is variable in height so that even when going up or down stairs the user won’t have to hunch over to keep a grip on it.

Although the robot can’t currently understand voice instructions, it can communicate with the user in a robotic female voice. The user indicates that the robot should move forward, left or right by placing pressure on the handle. The bot needs significant advancement before it’s ready to actually lead anyone around safely, but this very important project is off to an excellent start.

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See more in Robotics or under Technology. December, 2011.