We propose taking the last 50 years of robotics research and packing it into a small package that can be mounted on a powered wheelchair to provide self-driving capabilities.
Users will attach the package to their wheelchairs, plug it into the batteries and the chair control electronics. Then, using the system, they will be able to build maps of their homes and offices to navigate around these spaces autonomously. The wheelchair user will be able to use a variety of input devices to specify where they go, depending on their particular physical needs: on-screen map, eye-gaze into the world, voice commands, etc. The wheelchair will then take care of the rest.
We further propose to take a subset of this functionality and put it in a package that can be added to the Go Baby Go cars, allowing improved driving experience and autonomous data collection capabilities. In both cases, our system will dramatically improve the quality of life of tens of thousands of individuals around the world with severe motor disabilities, making them more independent, happier, and healthier.
Why improve a wheelchair? Why not develop more natural systems, like exoskeletons? The answer to these questions is twofold. Firstly, most people with severe motor disabilities already have powered wheelchairs. If we can provide a low-cost package that adds self-driving capabilities to these chairs, all of these people can take advantage of it for a minimal cost.
The second reason is that the people who stand to benefit most from this technology, those who are locked-in and cannot move their bodies at all, will find it hard to effectively use exoskeletons (as they are currently designed). To reach the most people in the shortest time, self-driving wheelchairs are the technology of choice.
Our work also extends to young children with motor disabilities. Working with Dr Sam Logan and the Go Baby Go project at Oregon State University, we are adapting the technology on the chair to work with low-cost toy cars that are used as motorised wheelchairs for young children.
There is growing evidence to show that moving about the world and interacting within it and with peers, is a vital part of early childhood development. Children with severe motor disabilities cannot easily do this and this leads to cognitive, social, and language delays. By giving these children the ability to move we can help them avoid these developmental delays and thrive with their typically-abled peers as well as create a dataset that will help clinicians significantly improve their understanding of early childhood motor disabilities and will ultimately, lead to better treatments.