The five research projects on the theme of 'Equality and Recovery', selected by the Polisocial Award 2021 and funded by 5 per mille donations to the Politecnico, are coming to an end. The public health emergency caused by the pandemic intensified imbalances and marginalisation and led to the concrete risk of an increase in social inequality; the projects funded acted according to a logic of economic, social and cultural recovery, promoting the development of methods, strategies, tools and technologies to reduce inequalities and facilitate access to resources and opportunities for particularly vulnerable people, social groups or communities.
The BUDD-e (Blind-assistive aUtonomous Droid Device) project is part of this framework: the team, made up of researchers from various Politecnico departments (DEIB, DIG, DESIGN and DABC), worked to develop a robot that could offer more independence to blind and visually impaired people, guiding them in everyday activities such as a run in the park or a trip to the shopping centre. "The initial idea was to provide blind and visually impaired people with a tool that would give them independence while running, but then the project was extended to other areas when we realised, together with our partners, that there are various accessibility difficulties in public spaces", explains Prof. Marcello Farina (Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering), the project's scientific co-ordinator.
Before starting, the researchers presented various blind and visually impaired consumers with a series of questionnaires to find out what their habits and needs were: it turned out that most of them (75%) only moved around when accompanied by friends, relatives or volunteers, and that 1% did not even leave the house for fear of hurting themselves.
Budd-e aims to replace carers in order to give more freedom to blind and visually impaired people: "The idea is to make it a public service, an aid you can use when you go to the supermarket, the park or the station", Farina explains. "The two places where we will carry out the first trials are the Niguarda Hospital and the Centro Sportivo Giurati at Politecnico: at the Niguarda the test will probably be in June, while we have not yet fixed the date at the Centro Sportivo; however, project will be concluded by September and a closing event will take place.
Budd-e has the same size and mobility as a wheelchair, and is a 2.0 version of Yape, a robot already on the market used for last-mile distribution (i.e., the last step in the supply chain, which takes place with the delivery of the product to the customer).
Compared to Yape, the most visible change in Budd-e is the addition of the 'hand strap' that serves to guide the user: "The wrist strap is active, it gives a tension of 0.6 kilograms force to the user, who thus knows where to go: Budd-e does not pull their arm, and only moves when the user moves, adapting to their speed and always maintaining the same distance", Farina explains. Powered by electric batteries, in order to function Budd-e must first map the place where it will move: in closed places (such as hospitals or shopping centres) it requires LIDAR technology (Light Detection and Ranging, an aerial remote sensing system), while for parks and open spaces, GPS mapping is sufficient.
"Budd-e is a work in progress", Farina clarifies: "Even the version we will test in June will not be the final one, as we will continue to improve it: the most important changes we want to make are the optimisation of the wrist strap pull system and the addition of an acoustic signal".