Self-driv­ing wheel­chairs are cost ef­fec­tive

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - 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 only, 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 self-driv­ing 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 eye­track­ing 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 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, three-di­men­sional sen­sor af­fixed to a bar on the front of the wheel­chair.

The sen­sor can pick up on ob­jects about five 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.

The sen­sor works in tan­dem with de­vices that track the speed at which the chair is trav­el­ling and up­loads in­for­ma­tion to a small on­board com­puter.

“Mapped mode” will al­low users to pro­gram fa­mil­iar spa­ces and fre­quently trav­elled routes, such as the route from a per­son’s of­fice to a con­fer­ence room, while “un­mapped mode” can be used in un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ments.

Vivek Burhan­purkar, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Cy­ber­works Ro­bot­ics, said the tech­nol­ogy has ben­e­fits for wheel­chair users of all stripes, not just those with up­per-body mo­bil­ity chal­lenges.

He said users can con­cen­trate on other ac­tiv­i­ties while the chair ac­com­plishes typ­i­cally dif­fi­cult tasks like eas­ing through doors or dock­ing to desks or ta­bles.

“Hav­ing self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy just makes the qual­ity of life a lot more con­ve­nient,” he said. “They can do other things rather than hav­ing to con­trol a joy­stick. They can be check­ing email, brows­ing the in­ter­net or what­ever you like.”

At least one wheel­chair-user agreed, say­ing it’s easy to en­vi­sion ways 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. Peo­ple like her, with con­nec­tive tis­sue dis­or­ders, can she said find them­selves at risk of in­jury if they’re forced to over­tax their bod­ies.

Au­ton­o­mous chairs could also of­fer safety ben­e­fits in some cases. She cites ex­am­ples of peo­ple prone to nar­colepsy who might now be able to use a power wheel­chair with less risk.


Jonathan Kelly, pro­fes­sor of the In­sti­tute for Aerospace Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Toronto, left, with stu­dents Rodolphe Per­rin, Mathilde Hede and Xinyi Li, by the self-driv­ing wheel­chair.

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