MIT students create new technology to help blind sailor

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Pauline Dowell in control of her boat during the 2017 Blind World Sailing championships in Sheboygan, Wis. Photo by Lisa Hartman.

Pauline Dowell in control of her boat during the 2017 Blind World Sailing championships in Sheboygan, Wis. Photo by Lisa Hartman.

Last summer, Pauline Dowell sailed a boat single-handedly from Marblehead to Provincetown in Massachusetts. That’s no small feat at the best of times, but it’s safe to say that Dowell faced a challenge that few other sailors in the race had to contend with.

She’s blind.

Dowell wasn’t alone on the race. But Kay VanValkenburgh, Dowell’s guide, could only act as Dowell’s eyes. “He wasn’t allowed to touch anything,” said Dowell.

Born half-blind, Dowell, now 55, has always had a love for the water. She went to the Norfolk School of Boatbuilding in Virginia to learn the craft and even lived in France where she sailed, but was usually a passenger. When she returned to Boston, she sailed with Community Boating Inc.

About six years ago, she lost the vision in her good eye. “I didn’t go anywhere or do anything,” Powell told Trade Only Today.

VanValkenburgh shared Dowell’s love for the water and about five years ago, Dowell mentioned she wanted to live on a boat. Dowell recalls her friend asking: “Why are you talking about it, why aren’t you doing something about it?”

Dowell sailing solo thanks to her audio telltales in a dinghy competition at MIT.

Dowell sailing solo thanks to her audio telltales in a dinghy competition at MIT.

The two searched up and down the East Coast and, ironically, she found her boat, a Beneteau 36-footer, nearby in Massachusetts. She bought it four years ago and named it Konik-Morski, Polish for sea horse. She and her guide dog, Dora, live on the boat in Charlestown Marina in Charleston, Mass.

After she and VanValkenburgh took a few cruises, Dowell, who works as a human resources administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started talking about how she would like to sail her boat more independently.

A friend put Dowell in touch with MIT’s Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology program. A group of four students, Sandy Yang, Tiffany Xi, Rebecca Agustin and Temitope “Tosin” Olabinjo took the challenge and named themselves Team Pauline.

Because they only had one semester to work on the solution, the students and Dowell focused on the telltales on the sails that let the helmsperson know if the flow coming off the sails is laminar or turbulent. Usually the sailor can glance at the telltales, but Dowell can’t. Xi is on the MIT sailing team and the four students attended a blind-sailing regatta to get a better understanding of the challenges Dowell faces.

“It’s incredibly impressive that they can use so many of their other senses to feel where they are going,” said Wi.

The team first tried a piezoelectric film sensor that didn’t give them enough consistent data on their test sailboat. The students then tried a photointerruptor sensor with a 3-D printed frame. They found that the data easiest to process was laminar or turbulent flow. Team Pauline tested the sensors on a couple of smaller boats and then tried it on Dowell’s boat.

“It acts like a trip wire,” said Yang. “One beep speed determines it like a scale and the pitch of the tone is for either the left or right telltale.”

The system uses four microcontrollers, one for each telltale, plus the speakers, and has a total cost of about $100. Olabinjo said she hopes that someone can continue the work and that “it can be improved to the point where it’s less costly so it can be very useful for blind and sighted sailors.”

At the end of the semester, Dowell was pleased with the progress of the project and has heard from other blind sailors who are interested in the technology. “I really want to be able to sail without having to rely on a lot of people,” she said.

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