Introducing the Self-Driving Wheelchair

 

Photo: ARGALLAB

It looks like self-driving cars have started a trend.

Thanks to forward thinking MIT students, the same technology that helps cars drive by themselves is soon coming to wheelchairs.

As of right now, electric wheelchairs are limited in their functions. They only allow the user to adjust their speed or the direction they are pointing, which can be hard if someone is in a tight space or needs to avoid an obstacle. To solve these problems, a group of MIT students are developing a self-driving wheelchair that could be used in nursing homes and hospitals.

The idea behind this next-generation technology came when one MIT researcher visited a retirement community and saw how there was a lack of facilities available for those with a limited range of motion. Daniela Rus noticed that there wasn’t enough staff on hand to help out when needed, so she thought that some sort of self-driving technology could really work wonders for those in wheelchairs.

So how does this MIT wheelchair work? It’s quite simple — the chair is equipped with three LiDAR sensors that work just like a self-driving car. Before it becomes automatic, the person will manually drive it through their area so the sensors can take into consideration how wide the railings, ramps, and doorways are. Once the sensors have finished mapping the physical environment, the person will click on the digital map provided within the chair, and off they go.

Not only that, but the sensors will also be able to tell if there are people, pillars, or any other obstacles in the way. And these wheelchairs are even so impressive that they will zoom up any ADA-standard wheelchair ramps with ease. Per ADA guidelines, wheelchair ramps should have a minimum width of 36 inches, hardly a challenge for these self-driving mini vehicles.

Before the wheelchair gets put into production, Rus is looking to expand its technology so the chair can work both indoors and out. Her team is also hoping to include technology that allows the chairs to make predictions, such as where the people around the chair are headed, and what is the best path to take to avoid them.

Once the chair gets produced, there are hopes it will go through clinical trials in hospitals both in Boston and Singapore.

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