For the blind and the physically disabled, moving about a busy urban environment alone presents a constant challenge. For the unlucky few who are both blind and disabled, or for those too impaired to look around while operating a wheelchair, that challenge becomes nearly insurmountable. But now a new “smart” wheelchair may allow those without sight or mobility to traverse a bustling city street.
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.