New tech makes any electric wheelchair autonomous

Technology that can turn existing electric wheelchairs into autonomous vehicles has been developed in Canada. Its creators, from Cyberworks Robotics Inc, the University of Toronto and Université de Sherbrooke, say it will be a ”gamechanger” for the severely disabled, giving them greater mobility and independence. Jim Drury reports.

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Technology that allows any electric wheelchair to drive autonomously has been devised by engineers in Canada. It uses artificial intelligence and inexpensive RGB-D sensors. SOUNDBITE (English) ENGINEERING PROFESSOR JONATHAN KELLY, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO INSTITUTE OF AEROSPACE STUDIES, SAYING: “It’s a sensor like a Microsoft Kinect that you may be familiar with from your X-box. It projects some light into the scene and then reads that light back and gives you information about how far obstacles are from you – and that information is then encoded into a map….that lets you know where it’s safe to drive, where it’s safe to travel, and where not to travel based on potential obstacles.” When a sensor detects an obstacle in the user’s path, it stops automatically. It’s aimed at those with conditions like multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries. Caregivers would first drive the chair to map areas commonly accessed by the user. Users could then choose from pre-selected destinations via joystick, eye gaze tracker, voice command, or Sip-and-Puff controller. Maya Burhanpurkar wrote an algorithm that allows wheelchairs to go through narrow doorways. SOUNDBITE (English) MAYA BURHANPURKAR, RESEARCHER, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, SAYING: “Many of the other groups that I’ve come across are using very expensive sensors, things that are tens of thousands of dollars that would never be affordable to a consumer, whereas with this technology we are using very cost effective sensors and computing hardware which means that this is something that could actually be commercially viable now.” Retrofitting the tech to an existing wheelchair costs less than $1,000 USD. Tests haven’t yet been carried out with disabled users, but the team thinks regulatory approval will be fast, allowing it to go on sale within five years. The technology is also being extended to other manually driven machines, like hospital floor scrubbers.

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