Seeing with Sonar
Bat echolocation is a perceptual system where ultrasonic sounds are emitted specifically to produce echoes. By comparing the outgoing pulse with the returning echoes, the brain and auditory nervous system can produce detailed images of the bat's surroundings. This allows bats to detect, localize and even classify their prey in complete darkness. Humans cannot do this and must use their eyes. But humans might use the same principle, a very helpful concept for the blind, The UltraCane uses ultrasonic waves - just as bats do - to reveal the location of obstacles. This data is then relayed to users through vibrations to the handle helping them to feel their way around.
A smart white cane that alerts users to obstacles has been launched in the UK. Though more sophisticated it builds on the traditional use of a cane to alert a blind person of obstacles in their path.
Like the bat, the Ultracane uses ultrasonic echoes (signals that bounce off objects in the vicinity) to detect how big and how far ahead obstacles are and converts this information into vibrating buttons in its handle. As there are a number of sensors, the can can even detect obstructions at head height.
The UltraCane™ originated as a research project at the University of Leeds. Recently viewers of the BBC series Miracles of Nature watched a blind cyclist use the exact same bat-inspired technology to get him safely down a mountain bike trail.
The UltraCane is equipped with a dual-range, narrow beam ultrasound system that provides a 100% hazard protection envelope in front of and, uniquely, forward of the head and chest of the user. Two ultrasound transducers provide range data on the closest potential hazards, such as plants, people, road signs, and over-hanging branches.
For further information see Sonar.
Ultracane image via University of Leeds.