Grade 9 Science Fair Wunderkind Creates a Smarter White Cane

Two science fairs, two hackathons and an internship—now she’s starting High School

What were you up to in the ninth grade? If you’re like me, your time was split between Reach for the Top, after-school robotics club, and attempts to feed the dog your math homework. However, the popular image of the young engineer is very different from that of the young tech writer. How do future engineers spend their halcyon days?

For Riya Karumanchi, the answer is “developing a high-tech assistive device.” 

Image courtesy of Riya Karumanchi

Image courtesy of Riya Karumanchi

Riya spent much of her middle school days working on the SmartCane, a sensor-enabled cane intended to enhance the functionality of the typical white cane used by many people who are blind or visually impaired. According to Riya, inspiration for the project was sparked when she visited a friend’s house and met the friend’s grandmother, who struggled with visual impairment. Noting the grandmother’s need for assistance in mobility and sensing, Riya began researching the tools used by the visually impaired. Like a true millennial, she noticed one thing in particular: that these tools seemed stuck in the last century.

“It’s crazy, because it’s 2018, and no one’s decided to improve the white cane,” said Riya. “So, the school science fair presented an opportunity to come up with a solution.”

Designing a Smarter Assistive Device

Riya’s initial idea began with smart shoes, which would provide haptic feedback in the form of vibration to guide the wearer around obstacles and direct them to their destination. However, she decided to scrap this idea when she realized that if the shoes were to lose power it would leave the user stranded without any assistive device.

“The reason that we chose to incorporate the technology on the cane was that if it failed to work, we wouldn’t be putting the user at risk,” said Riya. “In a shoe, if it failed to work, it could put the user in danger. It’s important that we are aware of those possible dangers and address them.”

The next idea built upon the traditional white cane by adding an ultrasonic sensor to the cane that could detect obstacles above the knee level. Vibration motors in the cane’s handle indicate obstacles to the user. However, Riya didn’t want to stop there. Hers was not the first smart cane on the market, and she had ideas that would help set her device apart from the pack.

In addition to the obstacle sensor, Riya added a panic button that would alert emergency services, as well as GPS navigation through haptic feedback. For example, the cane’s handle would vibrate twice for “turn right,” and vibrate once for “turn left.” 

Image courtesy of Riya Karumanchi

Image courtesy of Riya Karumanchi

Additional features to the SmartCane include light and wetness sensors, location tracking, as well as a speaker to provide audio assistance to the user, such as during GPS navigation or emergencies. The device is powered by an Arduino microcontroller.

Along the way to developing her full-featured prototype, Riya took advantage of every opportunity she had to get exposure for her idea, and receive feedback on it.

Getting Exposure for Her Design

As Riya developed her prototype, she first presented it at her school science fair with a partner.

“My partner and I won, and advanced to the regional science fair called BASEF (the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair).  We won multiple awards there, too. I wanted to take the project further after that. It was more than just a science fair project for me—I really wanted to improve the lives of the visually impaired.”

Next, Riya took her prototype to the Hacking Health Hackathon, a two-day challenge to create a new health-care product. At the hackathon, Riya joined a team of eight participants and set to work developing the SmartCane’s advanced features.

“Surprisingly, I was the only person under 20 there,” Riya laughed. “So, it was interesting. I had a great time and learned a lot.”

At the end of the two-day hackathon, Riya’s team pitched the SmartCane to a panel of industry professionals. The device won the People’s Choice Award at the hackathon. Even better, Riya earned an internship at MEDIC, a software development lab focused on e-health solutions, based at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Canada.

Image courtesy of Hacking Health

Image courtesy of Hacking Health

“I was at Mohawk College the whole summer, working with MEDIC, and I learned about coding, circuitry, and more about business. I also got the opportunity to present at different conferences. It’s been a really cool journey,” explained Riya.

After her internship, Riya moved on to HackABILITY, an extended hackathon based near Toronto, Canada. The event was organized by the Mississauga RIC (Research, Innovation and Commercialization) Centre and the University of Toronto Mississauga ICUBE

The RIC Centre and ICUBE are both startup incubator programs in the region. The RIC centre is targeted at advanced manufacturing, clean tech, and IoT ideas and innovation in the Greater Toronto Area. The ICUBE is a startup incubator based at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Along with acting as the lead organizer for hackABILITY, ICUBE also hosted a pitch night prior to the event, in which the SmartCane was a runner-up. You can read about the pitch event here. 

Startup incubators like ICUBE are a great resource for innovators like Riya and other users of the platform. ICUBE has real resources for helping make an idea or invention into a viable business, including a three-month boot camp program and a drop in advice program. 

HackABILITY, organized by ICUBE,  aimed to raise awareness about how rapid prototyping and technology can lead to advances and improvements in the field of assistive technology. Participants worked in teams, and every team included a person who needs the type of assistive technology being developed—a great way to ensure that a prototype will actually solve real problems.

Image courtesy of Mississauga RIC Center

Image courtesy of Mississauga RIC Center

Riya’s team won HackABILITY. What’s next for the SmartCane?

“We started out using a simple Arduino and a basic HC-SR04 ultrasonic sensor—parts that you can find off the shelf. After HackABILITY, we want to move away from the Arduino. We’re currently in the process of designing a printed circuit board (PCB). We’ve also created a feasibility model for the features and have begun contacting mechanical engineers and manufacturers to create a minimum viable product.” Projects

HackABILITY relied on the projects platform for all the team communication, collaboration and design needs of the teams.

“I heard about at a conference called TKS Innovate last summer,” explained Riya. “I thought it was really cool. We used the chat, whiteboard and direct messaging features a lot during the HackABILITY challenge.”

The Projects Whiteboard is a digital collaboration tool where anyone can post links, text, images and diagrams, or draw directly, facilitating the kind of free-form collaboration that online or remote teamwork usually lacks.

“It was also a place where we could communicate with the other teams as well, if you had any questions, or questions to the organizers. Everyone was on the platform, so it was easy to use,” said Riya.

The platform was also used to set up the teams. Anyone from students to seniors and industry professionals could join HackABILITY, so the platform offered a simple way to spin out the large group into teams based on interest.

“I learned a good amount of coding in Java, project management skills, teamwork, communication and presentation skills. I got used to pitching my ideas, talking to judges, answering questions, and managing my time between school and the SmartCane projects. Another thing I learned is how to deal with real-world challenges as they come up. I got a taste of real life. People may not always like your idea, and you have to work hard for it, and put in the effort and time. That’s what will get you places,” said Riya.

At just 14, Riya Karumanchi hasn’t quite figured out the details of her career path yet. For now, she’s set to begin high school in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program.

We published another story on HackABILITY called Engineers Turn Alexa into an AI Assistant for Tetraplegics. Click the link to see the video and feature story.

To try the projects platform for yourself, click here.