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The autonomous wheelchair raises the promise of assistive mobile robots

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December 16, 2006

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December 17, 2006 There are few areas in which technology can make such a great difference as in mobility assistance for the disabled and aged market. We’ve already written about Kanagawa Institute of Technology’s Power Assist Suit, Independence Technology’s iBot, and a mind-controlled wheelchair, but the announcement this week that researchers in Sweden have developed a wheelchair that can be driven manually, by remote controlled or fully autonomously suggests that devices enabling the most severely handicapped people to achieve independent mobility are inevitable .

In his research Sven Rönnbäck of Luleå University of Technology in Sweden has developed a new prototype wheelchair that can be either driven manually or remote controlled but can also navigate on its own. It’s an ‘intelligent’ wheelchair that enhances the freedom of users, reducing their dependency on relatives, friends, and personal assistants.

His dissertation titled "On Methods for Assistive Mobile Robots" presents a new navigation method that finds open and free areas where a vehicle can navigate. These free, open areas are used to create a map that can be used for navigation. The research has resulted in a new type of wheelchair prototype called MICA°©-Mobile Internet Connected Assistant.

“MICA is connected to the Internet and can be remote controlled or driven manually, but can also navigate on its own. The new navigation method is used to find possible routes for the wheelchair, past various obstacles, for instance. A distance-metering sensor is used to discover the surfaces that are available to the wheelchair, and the technology can also be used to ensure that the wheelchair is being used in a safe manner,” says Sven Rönnbäck.

One prospective user group would be severely handicapped individuals who would otherwise find it difficult to steer a wheelchair. Using a computer and a mouse controlled by the head, they can steer the wheelchair through head movements alone, which would obviously open new possibilities for people who have suffered spinal injuries, for example, and substantially lost control of their arms and legs.

“With the new navigation system, users can use their head to give commands to the wheelchair. Examples of commands are ‘take the next possible left,’ ‘next possible right,’ ‘follow the wall,’ ‘turn right/left,’ ‘go straight ahead,’ ‘go through the doorway,’ etc.”

Ultimately this new technology can be used to guide the blind and sight impaired as a complement to the cane. Since the technology also creates a map, it can also assist people who suffer from dementia and impaired memory. The technology thus provides the user with both enhanced freedom and reduced dependency on relatives and personal assistants.

Rönnbäck’s thesis can be downloaded here.

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About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, Telstra.com.au (Australia's largest Telco), Seek.com.au (Australia's largest employment site), top100.com.au, hitwise.com, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon
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