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Guidance system to help electric wheelchairs read rough terrain

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January 10, 2011

Electric wheelchair fitted with laser line striper and other terrain assistance devices. C...

Electric wheelchair fitted with laser line striper and other terrain assistance devices. Credit: FSU

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Many of the greatest civilian innovations can be traced back to military origins. Penicillin, radar, satellites and the Internet, just to name a few. So it is not uncommon for technologies developed for fighting wars to be found to have wider applications. The following idea is an example of this adaptation and is inspired by the important need of disabled veteran soldiers for independence and mobility. By using terrain sensing control systems designed for the guidance of autonomous vehicles on the battlefield, researchers have begun developing a system that will allow wheelchair users to access more areas than ever before.

Certain terrain types that able bodied people take in their stride can be difficult or even impossible for those in a wheelchair to navigate. Steep hills or ramps, mud, snow, and uneven ground can be dangerous obstacles for a disabled person. Researchers at the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering are working on technology able to detect hazardous terrain and automatically adjust control settings of an electric-powered wheelchair to allow a safer transit without the need for assistance.

"This technology will provide electric-powered wheelchair users with an increased degree of independence that may significantly increase their ability to participate in recreational and functional activities," Army Major Kevin Fitzpatrick, director of Walter Reed's wheelchair clinic, said.

Inspiration for the research began when Professor Emmanuel Collins, director of Florida State University's Center for Intelligent Systems, Control and Robotics, heard a presentation by Professor Rory Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories and chairman of Pitt's rehabilitation science and technology department. Cooper has used a wheelchair since receiving a spinal cord injury in 1980 during his service in the Army. In his presentation, Cooper noted the need for terrain sensing electric-powered wheelchair assistance. The two began developing the idea and along with collaborators at the National Science Foundation-sponsored Quality of Life Technology Center, the concept started taking shape.

"I'm inspired by the idea of applying technology originally meant for the battlefield to improve the quality of everyday life for injured soldiers and others," Collins said.

Automatic terrain-sensing controls for military robotic vehicles, and four-wheel-drive automobiles have now been on the market for nearly a decade. Collins adapted a device known as a laser line striper, originally developed for military use for use in the project. The end result is a system that enables electric-powered wheelchairs to detect hazardous terrain and implement safe driving strategies avoiding wheel slip, sinkage or vehicle tipping.

Collins said that, to his knowledge, no one else is working on this type of application. He estimated that if the team finds commercial backing the technology could come to fruition in around five years.

The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center has seen the promise in this research and has provided funding and guidance. The project now forms part of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology sub-portfolio within the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center's Advanced Prosthetics and Human Performance research portfolio.

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