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A new academic-industry collaboration at U of T Engineering is harnessing improved sensors and artificial intelligence to make electric wheelchairs self-driving. The technology could greatly simplify the lives of more than 5 million power wheelchair users across North America, and millions more worldwide. Since electric wheelchairs were first pioneered by inventors such as George Klein (MechE 2T8) in the 1950s, the fundamental technology has remained much the same. Most are controlled by joysticks, which may seem simple to use, but can be frustratingly cumbersome for many everyday tasks — from docking at a desk to traversing a narrow door frame. “Imagine parking a car in a tight space using only a tiny joystick,” says Professor Jonathan Kelly (UTIAS), who is leading the new collaboration. “That would be annoying for anyone.” The problem is compounded for users with multiple sclerosis, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease) or spinal cord injuries, who often lack upper body control, or those with Parkinson’s disease, who often have hand tremors. Some of these users employ devices known as the Sip-and-Puff (SNP) controllers, in which they input commands by sipping or puffing air using a plastic straw. They are an alternative to joysticks, but they can make complex tasks even more overwhelming. Robotic automation could address those challenges. Several groups around the world are working on self-driving wheelchairs, but most rely on high-end sensors that are priced out of reach of a typical consumer. Kelly, an expert in robotic sensing and perception, believes that the task could be accomplished for much less, thanks to a recent explosion in mass-produced sensor technology. He points to the Microsoft Kinect, which contains both a visible-spectrum camera and an infrared laser to detect distances. “Sensors like that used to cost thousands of dollars, but now you can buy them for less than $200,” says Kelly. “It has been a game-changer for robotics.” Automation could also help with tasks that are less complex, but more routine. For example, an autonomous wheelchair could use sensors to map a space and tag certain key locations, such as the kitchen, bedroom, etc. The user could then navigate to those spaces with a single command. Two years ago, Kelly was approached by Vivek Burhanpurkar, the CEO of Cyberworks Robotics, Inc. The company has a long history in autonomous robotics, including self-driving industrial cleaning machines, but Burhanpurkar saw an opportunity to move into assistive devices.”

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