Traditional wheelchairs used by the elderly and people with severe disabilities have some limited functions and flexibility. Their users often need help from nurses or relatives. Several teams are currently at work to develop robotic wheelchairs to overcome these limitations. For example, researchers from the University of Essex and the Institute of Automation at Beijing are developing the RoboChair. This RoboChair will be equipped with a vision system and a 3G wireless communication system. It will be able to avoid collisions and to plan a path. Meanwhile, Professor Ray Jarvis of Monash Universityís Intelligent Robotics Centre in Australia, is building another robotic wheelchair which will help people to travel off the beaten track (PDF format, 1 page, 131 KB). His prototype system combines robotic navigation with a four-wheel drive. It automatically adapts itself to the userís capabilities and takes control when needed.
Let's start with the RoboChair.
The RoboChair will have a user-friendly man-machine interface and the ability of navigation, avoiding collision and planning a path. It will be equipped with a new vision system and a 3G wireless communication system so that its carer or relative can monitor and communicate remotely when necessary.
Professor Huosheng Hu will lead Essex's Human-Centred Robotics team in developing algorithms for sensor fusion, map-building, intelligent decision-making, and tele-operation through the Internet using 3G mobile phones. Professor Kui Yuan of the Institute of Automation will develop prototype hardware and control software, including servo drivers, DSP-based control systems, sensor systems, and motion control algorithms.
What are the benefits to expect from this project?
The technology developed through this joint project will not only enable users to gain increased mobility and independence, but also enable carers and relatives to monitor and communicate remotely when necessary. Professor Hu continued: 'This is a very challenging project. One of the key challenges is to make the RoboChair cost-effective, easy to use and able to meet the needs of the elderly and disabled and their carers. The ethical and legal issues such as data security, privacy, and complex liability will also be an interesting challenge.'
Now, let's turn to Jarvis prototype of advanced robotic wheelchair.
Robotic navigation systems could enable people with even quite severe disabilities to travel along forest trails if funding can be found to mass-produce a wheelchair created by Prof Ray Jarvis of Monash Universityís Intelligent Robotics Centre.
"The system is designed to provide maximum freedom while protecting the user," Jarvis says. "The user has complete freedom unless they nearly crash. If there are a few near misses -- perhaps because of a tremor, or youíre getting tired -- the system takes over. If the user gets better it lets them have control again."
||Jarvis has combined his work in robotic navigation with a four-wheel drive, soft-tyred wheelchair suitable for forest tracks and beaches. He hopes it will open up a range of opportunities to those currently restricted to roads and footpaths. (Credit: Ray Jarvis).|
The idea has been taken to an extra level by combining the wheelchair and robotics with an "eye gaze tracker" created by Prof Alex Zelinsky of the Australian National University. This system detects the angle of the userís face and the direction of the pupils, and controls the wheelchair so that it travels in the direction the user is looking. When the occupant looks down the chair moves slowly, while raising the eyes will speed it up.
When will see a finished product?
At the moment any wheelchair with such a system would be enormously expensive. Jarvis admits the eye tracker in particular may prove unaffordable at first. However, he hopes that "some wheelchair-producing champion will mass-produce the product to the point where the price will fall.
As you can see, there are still major issues to solve, such as security and costs, before these robotic wheelchairs become available.
Sources: University of Essex, May 20, 2004; Australasian Science, April 22, 2004 (May 2004 Issue)