A Columbia Engineering research team drew inspiration from the traditional blind staff.
The result is a "robotic stick", an assistant equipped with a LiDAR laser that offers the ability to "touch" objects with light to help cross a space.
Canine (from "Cane", stick) is the name of this device that redefines the concept of spatial autonomy and improves walking stability for all, sighted and non-sighted.
According to a preliminary survey carried out by the team, 35% of people between 75 and 80 suffer from some form of motor problem (compared to 4% of people between 18 and 49). These figures are set to rise, given the observed trend. Today the gap between "young" and "old" is about 7 to 1. For every person aged 75 and over there are 7 under 75. By 2050, this ratio will become 5 to 1. Smarter assistive technology will be indispensable.
The smart sticks
An approach that was also successfully attempted in the past, that of the intelligent stick. Several devices have been developed, some definitely geared towards the blind with position sensors. Others oriented to diagnostics, with heart rate meters or other, able to read the patient's condition during use.
In fact, while the concept of "cane" is easier to embrace, it is more about the gentle hands of robotic assistants that help people move forward when walking becomes more complicated.
The task of the Columbia prototype is just that: to offer a gentle hand and safe driving. The device is composed of a robotic base that monitors the user during his movements and moves accordingly, and a robotic stick that takes into account both the user's stress and the indications from his base.
The cane, in practice, collects information from the base and offers gentle feedback to the user's hand, to help him orient himself.
To train Canine, the test subjects (12 perfectly healthy volunteers) walked up and down thousands of times along a strip equipped with sensors. They did this by wearing a VR helmet that provided them with visual models with different discomforts (lateral perturbations, partial blindness, other types of interference corresponding to various pathologies). The paths were then repeated with the help of Canine, who collected the data and compared them with the previous ones. The result is a considerable improvement in the stability of the subjects.
The project paper is available in the Automation Letters magazine. Here is a short video showing the test phases:
"The next phase of research will be a test on elderly patients to enrich Canine with ever more detailed data," says the professor Sunil Agrawal, director of the Robotics and Rehabilitation Laboratory, which leads the research.
Agrawal and his colleagues are confident that Canine will be an economic and effective solution to an ever more present need on the planet, that of proceeding at an increasingly advanced age with a more stable pace.