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Scientists build shopping robot for the blind

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US computer scientists have built a robot that uses RFID tags to navigate. They say it could help guide blind people around large buildings or shops, where RFID tags could also identify products on a shopping list. The robot also has a laser range finder to stop it from crashing into things.

The robot is the brainchild of Utah State University's Professor Vladimir Kulyukin, the BBC reports. He says that the robot is not intended as a replacement for guide dogs, but as a shopping assistant.

"The idea is that you...come to the store, grab the shopping assistant and it leads you to the different products. When you leave the store, you leave it behind," he told the BBC.

The prototype has been tested in a local store while it was closed, but now the research team is negotiating more extensive testing with a larger supermarket chain. Kulyukin is adamant that the robot needs testing in a real-world environment.

Based on the initial feedback, the team is working on a synthetic speech interface - the current interface is in Braille, and not all testers could use it. They are also working to improve its movement, after one tester said the machine accelerated to quickly for her.

In its current form, the prototype costs around $8,000, but the team is confident that the cost can be reduced by around two-thirds, if it was to be mass produced. If the project attracts the right kind of attention, Kulyukin says it could be in shops within two or three years. ®

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