Bill Smart, head of the OSU Personal Robotics Group team, explains how their self-driving wheelchair will give dignity and independence to wheelchair users

Self Driving Wheelchair


How does your self-driving wheelchair work?
We’ve developed a kit you can add to a standard power wheelchair. The kit comprises a couple of sensors – laser range-finders – a computer and other electronics. Using the sensors, the chair can build a map of the environment and show it to the user, who then selects a place to go. The chair then decides how best to get there, and drives to that point.

What impact could your invention have for people and society?
We can dramatically improve the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world with this technology.
Many people in powered wheelchairs, especially those with very limited ability to move, rely on other people to drive them around. Even if they have some ability to drive themselves – by using eye-gaze and a computer interface for example – this is a slow, laborious process. It ties up their eyes, which they also use to generate speech with an assistive device. This means that when they are driving they can’t do anything else: they can’t “talk” or even look up.  They must focus on the driving interface.
Our system gives back independence and dignity to these people, allowing them to look at their surroundings and interact with others as they move about. Since the chair knows where it is, we can also make the interfaces that wheelchair users use to control their environment (the lights, TV, for instance) simpler, only showing them the controls for the devices that are physically close to them, making the devices much easier to use.

What aspects of the project are you working to improve in time for the finals?
The trickiest part of the development so far has been getting the robotic package to interact with the wheelchair and make it move around. The wheelchair is not designed to be controlled by a computer.
We’re currently working to improve the navigation of the chair and make sure it works outdoors. Up to now, all of our testing has been indoors. As the competition final is outdoors, that has been a bit of a challenge for us. 

What field trials have you done so far?
We’ve been testing some of the technology, although not self-driving, on a wheelchair used by a person with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neurone disease). He’s been using the technology for about five months. The main results have been a proof of concept of the simplified interface to devices and a much better understanding of how to make a system like this work for real, without a team of graduate students around to fix it every day. 

If you won the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good, what would you do next?
If we win, then the award will fund the remaining development, testing and deployment of our system. We’re hoping to release the plans under an open-source licence and to help people build it and install it on their own chairs. The award would also help us to get the word out to the community of full-time power wheelchair users, and support people who can’t afford the full cost of the system themselves.