Toronto Star: Toronto researchers develop technology for self-driving wheelchairs

Self-driving technology has rolled into the city with a University of Toronto-created autonomous wheelchair.

The wheelchair was seen cruising down the atrium of the University of Toronto’s Bahen Centre for Information Technology last week, pausing for a person in its path before rotating around them — all without a driver.

It’s a prototype that uses an Xbox One Kinect sensors to help navigate obstacles. It was created by Cyberworks Robotics, the University of Toronto and the Universite de Sherbrooke.

“You can actually think of it as a self-driving car but for a wheelchair user and for indoor environments,” said Jonathan Kelly, an assistant professor at U of T’s Institute for Aerospace Studies.

As automated technology from delivery drones to smart homes takes over innovation, U of T and its partners have put the technology to use to help those with disabilities. The collaborative project, which began when Cyberworks Robotics reached out to the U of T lab about two years ago, expects to have their product on the market in about three years.

The prototype was designed to make getting around easier for people with severe upper body mobility impairments. It can navigate tricky doorways, dock at desks and tables and drive from one place to another with simple commands, Kelly said.

“If someone jumps in front, if a dog jumps out, if a child is there, if there’s clothing on the floor, the system onboard is automatically able to identify obstacles and it figures out all by itself, ‘Ah, OK. This is an obstacle and I have to go around,’” Kelly said.

The most important part is that it’s “a very low cost addition to an existing power wheelchair, so we’re able to retrofit existing chairs to use this technology,” Kelly said. To make it as affordable as possible designers are adding low-cost visual sensors onto existing wheelchairs —the prototype uses a Pride Mobility Products chair.

“Essentially, to be economically viable we need to hit a price point of perhaps $2,500 retail that this would sell for. So that is the goal, which is one of the primary reasons we took on (the project),” Kelly said. “It is very challenging to reach that price point and yet have extreme reliability.”

The retail product will be adaptable to a range of power chairs made by many manufacturers, Kelly said. And unlike the prototype, which uses an Xbox One Kinect at the front to gage distance and obstacles, the retail product could use any similar low-cost sensor. It will also have sensors on the wheels to know when the chair is moving, when it’s stationary and when it’s turning.

At its maximum speed, the chair will be able to roll at one metre per second, or just over 3-1/2 kilometres an hour, said Cyberworks Robotics engineer Rodolphe Perrin.

The genesis of the project dates back about 30 years ago to when Vivek Burhanpurkar, the CEO of Cyberworks Robotics, was a student at the University of Toronto and wrote his thesis on self-driving robots.

The rise of lower-cost, accurate sensors prompted Burhanpurkar to try and create an affordable autonomous chair.

“It’s going to change the lives of millions of the most vulnerable people in the world. It’s really hard to be in a wheelchair and this makes it so much easier,” Burhanpurkar said.

The team is also getting help through a summer internship program called Mitacs Globalink, which has brought a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student from China’s Zhejiang University to the project.

Xinyi Li will be focusing mainly on getting the wheelchair to navigate a larger area and to move more smoothly so the user feels more comfortable, she said.

“It’s a fascinating experience to work here,” she said. “If I have the chance I want to continue my degree of master in Canada so it’s also a great chance to study here considering this respect.”

By: Azzura Lalani