Smarter Wheelchairs Follow Your Commands, Unless You Do Something Foolish

Smart Wheelchairs at Case Western Reserve

There's no escaping age, but a team of researchers are trying to help an aging population escape the restrictions often placed on the more senior among us by limited mobility. At Case Western Reserve University, roboticists are working on a new kind of smart wheelchair that not only allows for joystick (in this case, an Xbox controller) and voice commands to guide a powered wheelchair, but boasts onboard AI that filters each command to make sure it is safe.

The video below offers a more thorough explanation, but essentially the researchers have devised forgiving automated wheelchair systems that allow for the occasional command mistake. This is especially important if, say, a person with limited physical mobility is using voice commands to guide his or her chair near obstacles or dangerous terrain (like a stairwell). Given a potentially dangerous command, the onboard computer second guesses it, ensuring the passenger doesn't inadvertently collide with something or put the chair on uneven terrain where a rollover might happen.

The team is also experimenting with voice-command chairs that know their ways around. That is, the user doesn't just give directional commands ("go left," "stop," etc.) but geographical orders like "go to the vending machine," or "go home." The user can then sit back and let the chair navigate a route of its choosing.