Glasgow researchers are pioneering the use of ‘robo guide dogs’ to help blind and partially sighted people navigate indoor spaces.

RoboGuide is an AI-powered four-legged mechanical canine with onboard sensors to help map out indoor environments such as museums, shopping centres and hospitals.

They can assist blind and partially sighted people to find the best way between locations and even use generative AI tech to provide an assistive guide to the experience.

Prof Muhammad Imran, dean of graduate studies at the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering, is co-investigator on the project.

He said: ”Our assistive technology project for the visually impaired embodies innovation, fostering inclusivity. In Glasgow, we’re pioneering world-changing technologies that hold the potential to transform lives and reshape societal norms. This achievement was made possible through collaboration with industry and charity partners and co-creating the design with the invaluable input of end users.”

Dr Olaoluwa Popoola, of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering, is the RoboGuide project’s principal investigator. 

He said: “Assistive technologies like the RoboGuide have the potential to provide blind and partially sighted people with more independence in their daily lives in the years to come.

“One significant drawback of many current four-legged, two-legged and wheeled robots is that the technology which allows them to find their way around can limit their usefulness as assistants for the visually impaired.

“Robots which use GPS to navigate, for example, can perform well outdoors, but often struggle in indoor settings, where signal coverage can weaken. Others, which use cameras to ‘see’, are limited by line of sight, which makes it harder for them to safely guide people around objects or around bends.”

The RoboGuide system uses a series of sophisticated sensors mounted on the robot’s exterior to accurately map and assess its surroundings. Software developed by the team help it learn the optimal routes between locations and interpret the sensor data in real-time to help the robot avoid the many moving obstacles it might encounter while guiding a human. 

The RoboGuide also incorporates large language model technology, lending it the ability to understand questions and comments from users and provide verbal responses in return. 

They are not intended to replace guide dogs but give owners the option to use them in an assistive role alongside their canines. In a museum setting, for example, the robot could talk to them about exhibits and offer interactions that their guide dogs couldn’t. For people with sight loss who don’t have a dog, the robot guides could help them navigate complex indoor spaces.

The project aims to bring a more complete version of the technology to market in the years to come to help support the 2.2 billion people around the world, and two million people in the UK, who live with sight loss.

The Forth Valley Sensory Centre (FVSC) Trust (FVSC) and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Scotland have lent their support to the development of the RoboGuide. 

In December, the RoboGuide was tested for the first time with volunteers from FVSC and RNIB at the Hunterian, Scotland’s oldest museum. The RoboGuide helped the volunteers find their way around the first floor of the museum, and provided interactive spoken guidance on six exhibits. 

Dr Wasim Ahmad, of the James Watt School of Engineering, is co-investigator on the project. He said: “We’re pleased to be working closely with the FVSC and RNIB Scotland to test the RoboGuide in real-world environments, and to integrate their feedback into more refined iterations of the technology.

“Ultimately, our aim is to develop a complete system which can be adapted for use with robots of all shapes and sizes to help blind and partially sighted people in a wide range of indoor situations. We hope that we can create a robust commercial product which can support the visually impaired wherever they might want extra help.”

Representatives from the Forth Valley Sensory Centre and RNIB Scotland are joining the Glasgow research team at the University of Glasgow’s Mazumdar-Shaw Advanced Research Centre today (Thursday 8 February) for an event showcasing the ongoing development of the RoboGuide.

Jacquie Winning MBE, the chief executive of the Forth Valley Sensory Centre, said: “Mobility is a big issue for the blind and partially sighted community. RoboGuide is a wonderful solution to that problem, and we are delighted to help test this innovative and creative robot. 

“We are pleased to play our part in helping to harness the power of new technology to improve the independence and confidence of people with sensory loss and make sure they can live their lives to the full.”

James Adams, Director, RNIB Scotland, says, “We’re delighted to be supporting the research and development of technology that could be part of making the world more accessible and empowering blind and partially sighted people to live their lives confidently.

“Technology innovations like this are reshaping the future of accessibility and this partnership demonstrates their burgeoning potential to create of a more inclusive world.”

The nine-month research project is supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UKRI, through the Impact Acceleration Account programme.