Developed at Lehigh University, the chair utilizes LIDAR, the visible-light equivalent of radar, to create a super-detailed image of the environment. A computer then compares that image to a database of stored maps. When the chair figures out where it is on the map, it can navigate from point A to point B.
The technology grew out of an earlier project to create an autonomously navigating car. Two years ago, the team that created the chair modified a Toyota Prius with a similar LIDAR and map system. That car became one of only six entrants, out of a field of 89, to finish a DARPA-sponsored 57-mile-long race. The same technology that guided the car to victory also allows the wheelchair to navigate.
And much like the car, this wheelchair represents yet another step in the further goal of LIDAR-assisted navigation. Not only does the Lehigh team want autonomous robots navigating the city as replacements for bike messengers, but they also hope to develop the LIDAR enough for use in unmapped spaces, like people's homes.
This while it sounds nice, would to me take a looooooong time to ever be practical. I couldn't even imagine all law suits could come up due to malfunctions, etc. Those darpa vehicles were not perfect at all, although amazing. What happens if wheelchair makes a mistake on where i thinks it is and decides to turn onto a busy road? or doesn't see other wheelchairs or pedestrians, etc. etc.
It's cool to dream, but just sometimes need to be realistic sometimes as well, this isn't something that will be out in next few years, that's for sure...