Can this robot help solve a guide dog shortage?

Glidance CEO Amos Miller is one of an estimated 253 million people worldwide who live with a moderate to severe vision impairment. The overwhelming majority of those people currently navigate through the world without access to highly trained guide dogs or difficult to master walking canes. Miller, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was five and has since lost most of his sight, believes his company’s autonomous guide robot could offer a solution to that mammoth accessibility gap. At just three pounds, Miller says “Glide” can spot obstacles and safely navigate blind people to their destinations, all at a fraction of the cost it takes to train and maintain highly specialized guide dogs. 

“In order to make a material difference to somebody who’s not very confident getting out and about, you need something that is physically connected to the ground and guide you,” Miller told PopSci. “And that’s what Glide is.”

“…we have these autonomous vehicles, we have self-guided drones, we land these drones on Mars and I’m sitting there at the airport and waiting for somebody to come to guide me to my gate. There’s something off here.”

Miller isn’t alone. Researchers across multiple continents are conducting experiments and testing the viability of robots, some of which happen to look like dogs themselves, as aides for the blind. If successful, these devices could bring an added layer of accessibility to large chunks of partially sighted and blind persons who’ve largely been left behind as autonomous technology has advanced around them. The Glide builds off of years of advances in robotics research and may represent one of the most promising new tools for aiding accessibility. Still, researchers say the technology isn’t poised to replace guide dogs anytime and would more likely attempt to fill in accessibility gaps for people who are unable or interested in owning a dog.  

How does the Glide robot work?

Though researchers have explored the idea of guide robots for at least five years, companies are just now on the verge of bringing products to market. Glidance, which was founded last year, is developing a robot ally called Glide, which it describes as the world’ “first self-guided primary mobility aid.” It resembles a small vacuum cleaner with a handle and two small wheels. The 9 by 9 inch robot uses “passive kinetic guidance” in place of a motor, so users simply push it forward to start it. Glidance says the device can be charged using a standard electrical outlet and can last up to 8 hours of “active use.”

“It’s as easy and familiar as holding onto someone’s hand.”

Glidance says the Glide uses an array of onboard sensors, cameras, and AI to analyze the immediate surroundings and guide users away from hazards. A haptic feedback sensor in the handle sends feedback to the users instructing them when they should slow down. Miller says the device will work with navigation apps which will allow users the ability to simply input a destination and have the device guide them towards it, not unlike an autonomous vehicle

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