Get­ting ready to roll

Canadian re­searchers de­velop tech­nol­ogy for self-driv­ing wheel­chairs

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - CANADA - BY MICHELLE MCQUIGGE

A team of Canadian re­searchers and ro­bot­ics ex­perts say they’ve de­vel­oped cost-ef­fec­tive tech­nol­ogy that would al­low power wheel­chairs to drive them­selves.

Toronto-based Cy­ber­works Ro­bot­ics and the Univer­sity of Toronto have ap­plied the same prin­ci­ples at work in self-driv­ing cars, say­ing us­ing sim­i­lar types of sen­sors on mo­tor­ized wheel­chairs can al­low the mo­bil­ity aids to dodge ob­sta­cles and travel routes with­out as­sis­tance from the user.

They say pre­vi­ous au­ton­o­mous wheel­chair de­signs could cost the user up­wards of $30,000, but say the prod­uct they’ve de­vel­oped will have a to­tal cost of be­tween $300 and $700.

The tech­nol­ogy is still a work in progress, as it still strug­gles to op­er­ate in full sun­light and is cur­rently in­tended for in­door use, but de­vel­op­ers say they hope to make it com­mer­cially avail­able in the near fu­ture.

Wheel­chair users say they’re cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the de­vel­op­ment of such tech­nol­ogy.

They say it has the po­ten­tial to re­duce user fa­tigue and even ad­dress sec­ondary dis­abil­i­ties, but should not be viewed as a so­lu­tion to the broader so­cial is­sue of en­sur­ing spa­ces are ac­ces­si­ble for all.

While the con­cept of self­driv­ing wheel­chairs has been ac­tive for quite some time, the cur­rent project truly got off the ground about two years ago, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Toronto pro­fes­sor and prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Jonathan Kelly.

The con­cept was orig­i­nally in­tended to help wheel­chair users with up­per-body dis­abil­i­ties that limited their move­ments, such as hand tremors, ALS or spinal cord in­juries.

Kelly said peo­ple with such con­di­tions can­not ma­nip­u­late the joy­stick found on most power chairs and must cur­rently re­sort to eye-track­ing tech­nol­ogy or “sip and puff” de­vices, which he likened to large straws, to con­trol their mo­bil­ity aids.

The new and as yet un­named tech­nol­ogy, he said, might be seen as a wel­come al­ter­na­tive.

“All of th­ese tech­nolo­gies are ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to use and very te­dious to use. They’re ba­si­cally ex­haust­ing,” Kelly said of the cur­rently avail­able op­tions. “For users with th­ese types of mo­bil­ity im­pair­ments, if we can en­able au­ton­o­mous nav­i­ga­tion, it could re­ally dra­mat­i­cally en­hance their qual­ity of life.”

Kelly said the project has not fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing new wheel­chairs, but rather a sen­sory sys­tem that could be retro­fit­ted to ex­ist­ing power wheel­chairs or in­cor­po­rated in ones to be built in the fu­ture.

One key piece, he said, is a rel­a­tively low-cost, three­d­i­men­sional sen­sor af­fixed to a bar on the front of the wheel­chair.

The sen­sor can pick up on ob­jects about 5 me­tres away and, much like self-driv­ing cars, chart a course that will avoid ob­jects in its path, travel smoothly through open doors and per­form other typ­i­cal func­tions that usu­ally re­quire in­put from the user, he said.

At least one wheel­chair user said it’s easy to en­vi­sion ways in which self-driv­ing wheel­chairs could sim­plify life in some re­spects.

Alexandra Haa­gaard, 29, said it would be ben­e­fi­cial to be able to teach wheel­chairs to nav­i­gate ac­ces­si­ble routes, re­duc­ing fa­tigue on wheel­chair op­er­a­tors. But she cau­tioned against treat­ing such tech­nol­ogy as a cure-all so­lu­tion.

Self-driv­ing chairs could con­trib­ute to the stigma power wheel­chair users al­ready face, she said, adding many are viewed as lazy and treated ac­cord­ingly.

She also said the ad­vent of tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions should not de­tract from so­ci­ety’s ef­forts to build more in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ments.

“It seems to be very much the in­di­vid­u­al­ized fo­cus that abled peo­ple tend to have when they try to think of ac­ces­si­ble so­lu­tions, rather than dis­abled peo­ple who are ar­gu­ing, ‘I’d rather we work on mak­ing the built world more ac­ces­si­ble,”’ she said.

CHRISTO­PHER KATSAROV/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jonathan Kelly, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of the In­sti­tute for Aerospace Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Toronto, poses for a por­trait with stu­dent Xinyi Li, by the self­driv­ing wheel­chair they de­vel­oped at the Univer­sity of Toronto on Thurs­day. A team of Canadian re­searchers and ro­bot­ics ex­perts say they’ve de­vel­oped cost-ef­fec­tive tech­nol­ogy that would al­low power wheel­chairs to drive them­selves.

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