WPI Developing Smart Wheelchairs

wheel-tease-7980First it was smartphones, then smart watches. Now the idea of making items smart, intuitive and better is extending to wheelchairs. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) a small team is working on a project to create a more intelligent wheelchair that employs new sensor technologies and control systems.

The eventual goal is to design a wheelchair that can be operated and navigated by using a headband with sensors that detect body movements and relay the data to the chair. By making wheelchairs “smarter”, developers are hoping the devices will eventually be as technologically advanced as a car, giving people with disabilities new levels of mobility and freedom.

Another goal of the project is to make the sensor-driven wheelchairs affordable by using electronics that have declined in price and standard wheelchairs that can be retrofitted. With the full equipment set added, a sensor-driven wheelchair would top off at about 220 lbs.

However, like many tech advancements, there are a number of hurdles in getting a prototype from a university lab to the market.

“The pace of development that happens at the university is faster than in the rehab industry,” Don Fredette, an adaptive equipment specialist at a facility that cares of people with disabilities, told the Boston Globe.

There is also the problem of getting investors interested in a product that serves a relatively small market, meaning less return on their investment.

“One thing that makes it a little bit difficult is that, relatively speaking, the market is fairly small,” Maysam Ghovanloo, an associate professor of engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Globe. “The progress is slower than the kind of technology that venture capitalists or major technology companies are pushing”.

Still, teams like the one at WPI are determined to see their projects through.

Steve Sailing, a resident of the Leonard Florence Center for Living, an assisted-living facility in Chelsea, told the Globe, “Such a wheelchair will revolutionize mobility for the paralyzed. I often tell people that until medicine proves otherwise, technology is the cure”.

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