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Rolex 24 At Daytona

January 29, 2011 by staff 

Rolex 24 At Daytona, (CP) – It’s a clear morning at Daytona International Speedway, Mark Riccobono, but can not say, nor really matter to him.

He walks next to the driver of a black Ford Escape Hybrid parked on the start-finish line, opens the door, sits down and adjusts his seat. After a few minutes the car regimes and takes off.

None of this is unusual in a Mecca of motorsports racing, except for one thing: Riccobono is blind. Saturday, Riccobono take part in a public demonstration, conducted independently with the help of new technology and nonvisual a specially modified car. The event, led by the National Federation of the Blind, is one of the pre-race activities on Saturday Rolex 24 at Daytona event. Riccobono will lead some of the same course as the drivers in the race.

“I pretty much ruled out the idea that the conduct was possible because I did not focus on this aspect of something I could not do,” said Riccobono, 34, who has been legally blind since age 5 and was selected from a group of test pilots to be behind the wheel Saturday. “But I think this project is a clear example that when you dream big and put your heart and resources in this folder, go to unexpected places.”

The NFB, an advocacy group of more than 50,000 members, hatched the idea a decade ago.

In 2004 he began the pilot Blind Challenge through its Jernigan Institute. The challenge has encouraged partnerships with universities and manufacturers to create technology that would allow a blind driver in safely driving a vehicle.

Saturday’s event has been under development for the past three years through partnership with the NFB Virginia Tech College of Engineering and TORC Technologies. The students developed the equipment will use Riccobono. TORC integrated these into a working vehicle.

Several Virginia Tech has teamed up with students and TORC won 500,000 and when they placed a third competition in 2007 developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to build a fully robotic vehicle. Thus, when Dr. Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanics Laboratory Tech (Romell), heard about the challenge of the NFB, he thought it was a no-brainer to get involved.

“We said, ‘Hey, we already have a fully autonomous vehicle, how difficult would it be to put a person inside?” Hong said. “We could not be more wrong. They did not want to drive a vehicle around a blind person. They wanted a vehicle that a blind person can make decisions and is actively driving the vehicle. So we had from scratch. ”

Hong said the biggest challenge was finding a way to transmit information in real time to a driver who cannot see. They arrived with a combination of laser and camera sensors mounted around the vehicle, whichanlyzes the information and fed to sensors worn by the driver.

Working with and just 5,000 in initial funding, the first vehicle they built in 2008 converted a buggy they bought on eBay for $ 2000. The car also vibrating chairs and jackets and debuted in the summer of 2009 at a program organized by the NFB for high school student’s age of 175 blind. The BDC is now funded by grants.

The Ford Escape Hybrid that will be used Saturday is equipped with several lasers and to develop a camera system designed by TORC will react with the new devices and DriveGrip SpeedStrip students at Virginia Tech designed.

DriveGrip consists of two gloves that send vibrations on the fingers to tell the driver how to turn the wheel. SpeedStrip is a cushion in the back and the driver’s legs and tell them how to accelerate.

“One of the main things I want to do is a technology that allows the company,” said Paul D’Angio, 23, head of Virginia Tech grad student on the project. “You can work with the military and a lot technology is impressive, but it will not help people for years later … This is something that happens now. ”

Anil Lewis, director of the NFB of strategic communication, trained alongside Riccobono driving the Escape. He has not lost sight until the age of 25 when he developed an incurable form of blindness called retinitis pigmentosa. Having learned to drive like a sighted person, “he said relearn the blind is not much difference.

“It is very nearly the same kind of learning curve as a sighted person to learn to drive,” said Lewis, 46. “You learn different techniques, but you drive yourself more comfortable. … After a while, it kind of second nature. ”

Riccobono, now director of the Institute Jernigan, was born with aniridia, a congenital disease in which a person is born without an iris in one or both eyes.

With only 10 percent of his vision at age 5, he continued to lose vision throughout his childhood. He lost all vision in his left eye in the eighth grade. Now 34, he has also lost most of the vision in his right eye, having only light perception of colors and shapes.

Now, Riccobono will help new technology areas. Although, he admits, prepare the company to a true blind driver will be a bigger obstacle.

“Hardly anyone in the world believes in a blind person will never drive,” he said. “There will be a lot of work to convince them that we can drive a vehicle that is much more complex and has many more risks. Now we must convince society that this event is not only a blow. That’s true. It is dynamic research that has done great things. ”

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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