Guide dogs for the visually impaired provide an important service and help provide a welcome sense of autonomy to physically-challenged individuals. Unfortunately, the highly-skilled canines require about US$30,000 in training over several months, and always seem to be in short supply. The growing demand for these specialized animal companions gave a group of engineers from Japan's NSK corporation and the University of Electro-Communications just the impetus they needed to design a mechanical solution, and the robotic guide dog was born.

"Raising a guide dog takes a long time, and a dog can only work for about 10 years," said Katsuyuki Sagayama from NSK's Emerging Technology Research Center. So the number of guide dogs can't be increased instantly. Also, some people don't like having animals around. So we've developed this robot, as a way of doing similar things to a guide dog,"

The four-legged, eight-wheeled mechanical companion rolls on flat surfaces and can even tackle stairs. It employs attitude, shape and position data from an innovative hack of Microsoft's Kinect gaming device to sense stair number and width.

Sagayama pointed out that there are sensors on the legs, as well. "If we put a sensor on the head, the robot can see what's ahead, but it has blind spots around the legs. So the distance image sensor on the head is used to recognize steps overall, while information around the legs is obtained using proximity sensors."

To keep the user's grip solid and prevent the need to hunch over on stairs, the handle varies in height and angle. An intuitive force sensor on the end of the grip directs the robot's movement: push forward and it moves straight ahead, twist it and the robot turns. The "robodog" speaks with a computerized female voice, with which it conveys details about the surroundings, as well as instructions to the user on how to avoid obstacles. It will also eventually respond to voice commands, a function that will make it even more similar to the real dogs it's designed to replace.

While the rather noisy prototype is well thought-out, there are still many design and safety issues to be solved before a commercial version (still many years away) will be ready for market.

"We haven't considered the safety aspects very much yet," Sagayama said. "We've finally reached the level where the robot can recognize and climb stairs. So what we want to think about now is safety; for example, how to avoid falling, how to recover and keep climbing if a fall does happen, and how to prevent the user's fingers from getting caught when the robot moves."

Though there's no substitute for the love a dog can lavish on its owner, this device may eventually give many of those less fortunate than us a chance to safely be mobile and more independent. To us, that's several steps in the right direction.

Catch the DigInfo.tv videos below to see the robot in action: