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The Next Frontier In Automation: Self-Driving Wheelchairs

Understanding that mobility is a crucial factor to a person’s independence, researchers are outfitting wheelchairs with the same sensor technology as self-driving cars.

The same technology that makes self-driving cars possible could also transform wheelchairs.

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For someone with advanced Lou Gehrig’s disease or severe paralysis, a motorized wheelchair can be very hard to use: If you can’t move a joystick with your hand, you have to use a switch embedded in the headset or a “sip-and-puff” device controlled with the breath.

The devices only allow you to control one thing at a time: You can adjust your speed or the direction that your wheelchair is pointing, but not both simultaneously.

[Photo: argallab]

“This basically makes it so the operation of the wheelchair is much more challenging, especially when you’re dealing with tightly constrained spaces,” says Brenna Argall, a professor at Northwestern University who is developing technology for autonomous wheelchairs in her Assistive and Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory. “What this means, in practice, is that for many people it’s a burden or very fatiguing mentally and physically to operate the wheelchair,” she tells Co.Exist.

And there’s the fact that some people don’t have enough motor control to be prescribed a wheelchair. Children who can’t easily use a wheelchair, similarly, may not be allowed to bring it to school.

Autonomy can change that by outfitting wheelchairs with sensors to avoid obstacles in much the same way a self-driving car does. Several researchers are working on variations of the wheelchair-adapted technology. At Oregon State University, a team is developing a low-cost kit that could be added to existing wheelchairs. At MIT, a team is developing a self-driving wheelchair that could be used in nursing homes or hospitals.

[Photo: C. Jason Brown]

“There is a lot we can borrow from the field of autonomous robots and what mobile robots have been able to do on their own for decades now,” Argall says.

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Her focus is on developing a wheelchair that can leave users with as much control as possible. “We don’t want to take autonomy away from people–we only want to add autonomy,” she says. The system balances human and robotic control; if the wheelchair senses that it’s going to run into something if it continues on a path set by a human, it makes only minute adjustments instead of taking over and driving on its own. The final device will likely give people options for how much control they want to retain.

The automated wheelchair may still be in development for another five years, as the team continues to refine the technology. Argall’s lab, which is part of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, is moving into a new research hospital this month called the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, which puts researchers directly next to therapy spaces for patients–something that could help aspects of the technology’s design, like the lab’s wheelchair or robotic prosthetics.

“We’re going to now directly see people interacting with their therapists in ways that maybe we wouldn’t have seen in our lab, which might cause us to think of different considerations in the technology we’re building,” Argall says. “And vice versa, they will see what our technology is capable of or not capable of, and they might have ideas for how it can be changed or something new that we could develop.”

If the wheelchair can be commercialized, it could change lives, potentially giving someone the ability to go to a job by themselves, or do daily tasks that would have required a caregiver in the past. “It could have big implications for costs in terms of caregiving,” she says. “It’s also been shown that independence matters a lot for people’s mental health . . . part of that is because of your loss of autonomy, and this can help with that as well.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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