Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Sonar sticks use ultrasound to guide blind people

The "SmartCane" has been developed in India as a low-cost smart technology to provide independent mobility for blind people. The "SmartCane" has been developed in India as a low-cost smart technology to provide independent mobility for blind people.
HIDE CAPTION
SmartCane
SmartCane
SmartCane
SmartCane
Ultracane
Ultracane
UltraBike
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New low-cost smart technology to provide independent mobility for the blind
  • The SmartCane uses ultrasound to detect obstacles in the path of users
  • It can detect obstacles above knee height, which are hard to detect with standard canes

Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.

(CNN) -- "On the streets the sidewalks are cluttered with street vendors, animals, streetlights and other obstacles which make them uncomfortable even for sighted people," explains Professor Meenakshi Balakrishnan, a computer engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology, in Delhi.

Balakrishnan heads the team behind the "SmartCaneTM," a new device using ultrasound to guide the visually impaired through the busy streets of India by building upon the widely used white cane.

"A white cane is an excellent device, providing a lot of information to users," he says. "But it is poor at detecting obstacles that are above waist height and do not have a touch-point on the ground, such as a tree branches sticking out into your path."

On the streets the sidewalks are cluttered with street vendors, animals, streetlights and other obstacles
Professor M. Balakrishnan, Indian Institute of Technology

The team at SmartCane™ took on this challenge by copying the skills of animals such as bats, which emit sonar calls into their surroundings and use the echoes bouncing back from nearby objects to divert around them. The smart technology version instead sends out ultrasound waves via a device attached to a standard white cane; it detects them on their return, and uses vibrations to inform users of any obstacles in their way.

The real benefit comes from the ultrasound scanning a 45 degree span above the knee, providing information a regular cane simply can't provide. As people move the cane from left to right when they walk, vibrations detected on one side mean they should move towards the other.

Read: Carpenter cuts off his fingers, makes himself new ones

Living with blindness
The 'bionic eye'
Seeing through sound

Differing patterns and intensities of vibration tell users the distance of the object obstructing their path, as far as three meters away.

Smart and low cost

The SmartCane™ is not the first of its kind, with similar technologies existing in countries including South Korea, Taiwan and the United Kingdom, where the "Ultracane" has been available since 2011.

"Ultracane provides narrow-beam accurate navigation that allows a skilled user to proceed at normal walking speed. It helps you to 'navigate your way' rather than simply 'avoid hitting things.'" explains Dr Paul Clarke, director of Sound Foresight Technology Limited whose Ultracane device provides information on the direction, as well as distance, of an obstacle when aiding the mobility of its thousands of users worldwide. But a retail price of over $1,000 places it firmly out of reach of many in developing countries.

"The aim of the Ultracane is to offer blind and visually impaired communities a device that gives them independent personal mobility outside the home," he says. The company has recently unveiled an "Ultrabike," a device that fits onto bikes and uses vibration to provide greater freedom on supervised cycle tracks. "Under controlled and supervised conditions the Ultrabike gives blind and visually impaired people an opportunity to experience -- or re-experience -- riding a bike," says Clarke.


The goal for Balakrishnan and his team, however, had been a low-cost technology to provide independence to the 15 million people estimated to be blind in India, where blindness is a national health priority.

"We are targeting low-cost economies, starting with India," states Balakrishnan. "In high-income countries, footpaths are wider and fairly safe with few obstacles, but in India there are many obstructions meaning people who are visually impaired are reluctant to leave their homes."

There are 5 million people estimated to be blind who are of productive age
Professor M. Balakrishnan, Indian Institute of Technology

Retailing at 3,000 Indian rupees, which is just $50, the SmartCane™ recently completed trials with 150 users from across the country and is now available to buy. The challenge remaining is to find and reach the millions of visually impaired Indians, many of whom reside in the poorest and most remote communities.

"There are 5 million people estimated to be blind who are of productive age and need independent mobility to work or go to school and be part of the mainstream," concludes Balakrishnan. "We are working through schools, hospitals and local NGOs, who are the groups with access to the people we need to reach."

With a goal of at least 50 partners, including government institutions and local NGOs, the aim is to bring independence to all the visually impaired people not only in India, but eventually beyond the country to benefit other low-income populations.

Read: Carpenter cuts off his fingers, makes himself new ones

Read: Is this the return of the 'White Plague'?

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1002 GMT (1802 HKT)
A device for extracting water from air is being used by the military -- could it help developing countries too?
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0931 GMT (1731 HKT)
Air-cleaning pavillion to be launched at the 2015 Milan Expo
Air pollution is now the biggest global environmental killer, but these high-tech solutions could save lives.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1954 GMT (0354 HKT)
robohand metal hand
A South African carpenter lost his fingers in an accident -- now he's making mechanical fingers and hands for others.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Connie Culp was injured when her husband shot her in 2004. She underwent a near-total face transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in 2008 -- the first operation of its kind in the United States
As face transplants become more common, hospitals may soon be asking: Will you donate your face?
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1718 GMT (0118 HKT)
TB is growing increasingly drug resistant -- and it's becoming a global problem.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
A 10-year-old inventor and a 20-year-old MD? Meet the whiz kids changing the face of medicine.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1027 GMT (1827 HKT)
A Southern Sudanese man uses a pipe filter to protect himself from Guinea worm disease while drinking water from a potentially infected source. The pipe filter strains out the water fleas that can contain Guinea worm larvae.
Guinea worm disease once infected millions -- now it's almost eradicated. But can we catch the final cases?
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1046 GMT (1846 HKT)
A staff member from the Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan, a non-profit organisation based in Taipei, points at the part of a horseshoe crab where blood is drawn for use in laboratory tests against animals, during a press conference in Taipei on December 4, 2012.
Hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs are captured each year for their incredible blue blood. Here's why.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Lika Rose Caticon, 7, who is suffering from Typhoid fever, holds a doll as she lies in a makeshift cot at the overcrowded JP Rizal Memorial District Hospital in Calamba City south of the Philippine capital Manila on March 5, 2008.
As we travel ever further afield, which infectious diseases do you need to know about?
vital signs logo
Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT