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Self-driving wheelchair rolls out at University of Toronto

A self-driving wheelchair is cruising the halls of University of Toronto this summer. The autonomous wheelchair, a joint project between U of T, Université de Sherbrooke, and Cyberworks Robotics, is being tested by 20-year-old Xinyi Li, an undergraduate student at Zhejiang University who’s in Canada for 12-weeks as a Mitacs Globalink intern.

Working under the direction of Professor Jonathan Kelly, Xinyi is helping to extend leading-edge technology that makes it possible for the wheelchair to navigate and drive itself. Working under the direction of Professor Jonathan Kelly, Xinyi is helping to extend leading-edge technology that makes it possible for the wheelchair to navigate and drive itself.

The WiFi-enabled wheelchair is unique because it incorporates low-cost visual sensors instead of expensive laser scanners, making it a much more feasible, near-term solution than similar proposed designs. It operates on the same principles as a self-driving car: an onboard computer provides a geometric map of a user’s surroundings and then the user issues simple commands to travel from point A to point B. The powerchair relies on computer vision technology to avoid obstacles, travel through doorways, and manoeuvre into safe positions. It is currently controlled via a tablet or smartphone.

“Part of the impetus for this project was the fact that we’re seeing so many companies get involved in self-driving cars,” says Professor Kelly, who is the director of the U of T Space and Terrestrial Autonomous Robotics Systems (STARS) Lab. “Certainly a self-driving wheelchair — which moves at much slower speeds — should be a slightly easier problem to solve.”

During her time in Canada, Xinyi is working to determine the best way for users with severe upper-body mobility limitations to command the chair simply and efficiently, using existing sip-and-puff switches or eye gaze technology.

For Xinyi, the experience of coming to Canada is an opportunity to explore a new academic atmosphere and gain the skills she will need to apply for either a master’s or PhD in the future.

“I haven’t decided about a specific career path yet, so my main goal is to perform my best and finish my internship with a scholarship to further my studies,” says Xinyi. 


Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; the China Scholarship Council; Campus France; the German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico; Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education; and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.