National Instruments awarded its 2010 Application of the Year award to the Virginia Tech Blind Driver Challenge, a project designed to one day allow blind people to independently drive automobiles. 

The project is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Tech College of Engineering and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), partnering with TORC Technologies.

The awards were given Aug. 3 in Austin, Texas, at NIWeek, a graphical system design conference and exhibition showcasing new developments in virtual instrumentation and commercial technologies. The Blind Driver Challenge project also won National Instruments’ 2010 Graphical System Design Achievement Award, Robotics Division.

The Blind Driver Challenge project is designed to create novel non-visual user interfaces that will allow a blind person to drive an automobile safely and independently. The project was submitted to NIWeek judges as a paper titled, “Building a Semiautonomous Vehicle Driven by the Visually Impaired with NI LabVIEW and CompactRIO.” Both LabVIEW and CompactRIO are National Instruments products.

“Without the help of National Instruments’ LabVIEW and CompactRIO technology, our students might not have been able to build this prototype car that one day could lead to new transportation choices and more independence for the blind and low-vision,” said Richard C. Benson, dean of the College of  Engineering. “Our students receiving an award for their efforts from National Instruments is the icing on the cake.”

The Blind Driver Challenge project was launched in 2004 by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), with only Virginia Tech taking up the cause. Under the direction of Dennis Hong, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech, undergraduate engineering students built a prototype buggy that formally debuted and was successfully tested at the NFB’s Youth Slam summer camp in College Park, Md., in July 2009.

The Virginia Tech team also gave a keynote demonstration on the project at NIWeek. Featured speakers were Hong; Greg Jannaman, an engineer at National Instruments; and the former Blind Driver Challenge student team leader and a College of Engineering alum; Kimberly Wenger of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., a senior in mechanical engineering, and current student leader of the team; and Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB’s Jernigan Institute and one of the first blind people to drive the prototype vehicle.

The Blind Driver Challenge team is now working with the NFB on the second-generation prototype vehicle, integrating new and improved interface technologies into a modified 2010 Ford Hybrid Escape, featuring TORC’s ByWire XGV technology. TORC is a robotics engineering and product development company based at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg, Va.

National Instruments’ 2010 Graphical System Design Achievement Awards received 108 submissions from authors in more than 20 countries, according to the company’s website. A judging committee of technical publication editors and NI experts reviewed the papers and selected the contest finalists and winners.

Several other College of Engineering teams attended NIWeek, including the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team of Virginia Tech and a group highlighting a newly developed digital version of a paper-based pediatrics medical emergency chart, known as the Broselow Tape. The Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team also gave a keynote demo to NIWeek attendees, highlighting efforts to re-engineer a hybrid car for maximum fuel efficiency and lowest possible emissions.

This is not the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s first major win at NIWeek. In 2007, a team, headed by Hong, won for its miniature autonomous humanoid robot DARwIn project, snagging prizes for Most Outstanding Application of Virtual Instrumentation; Editor’s Choice Award for Best Application of Virtual Instrumentation; and Best Application of Virtual Instrumentation, Mechatronics Category.

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