Smart technologies combined with artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are changing everything we know about mobility devices. A robot with a long-lasting battery that cleans your house, cooks dinner and carries you through the streets? There may already be a prototype.
by Andrew Slorance
Smart tech is everywhere. We all own a smart phone and we have high expectations of it. We expect our next smart phone to be smarter and more advanced than our current phone. However, the one product we need in life more than any other — our wheelchair — we have to accept as is.
Wheelchairs aren’t smart. They aren’t even very advanced, considering most of their features were devised in the 1980s.
My company wants to change this by designing the first ever smart manual wheelchair. This chair will adjust its own center of gravity so it is always easy to push and always stable. It will have intelligent braking — it will know when it is going down a slope and slow down electronically so the user doesn’t have to grip the push rims as brakes. It will know when it is going up a slope, and power assist will kick in automatically. It will know if there is an obstacle such as a raised paving slab in its path and warn the user.
A smart wheelchair is the natural progression from where we are today. In my view, it is inevitable. Some big wheelchair manufacturers may not realize it, but there is precedent of large tech firms not seeing the writing on the wall. Kodak didn’t believe digital photography was a real threat to 35mm film and to the global network of processing labs — how wrong they were.
Just as digital cameras pushed aside film, things are about to radically change in wheelchairs and in mobility gear as a whole. The companies that are the market leaders today will soon be challenged by powerful newcomers to the mobility sector. The rapidly-changing car market is pushing automotive firms to expand into other sectors. As car buyers move toward leasing, and cars all become electric and self-driving, the car industry is having a big shake-up. This is the reason Toyota has recently announced it is becoming a mobility company. It doesn’t mean just disability mobility — it means all types of mobility, for everyone, including us. Any kind of device that enables mobility, Toyota wants to be involved in.
Our cars have been smart for years. They automatically shift traction from one wheel to another, they know road conditions, they know if the car is skidding, they can read road signs and much more. Implementing intelligent systems into mobility devices will be easy for automotive firms to do. Maybe this is why the wheelchair companies we see today haven’t done it — the know-how to develop AI and intelligent systems that are now standard in automobiles is not typically seen in the research and design department of a wheelchair firm.
As smart wheelchairs become standard, I think we will see them networked and sharing info with each other, such as which route is the best to take for ease of pushing, what road conditions are like and where to find accessible facilities.
Real-life data of how wheelchairs are used will allow designers to create chairs around what we do and need. Our medical therapists will be able to view data on how active we are and use it to help us set goals for the next stage of our rehab. Our wheelchairs will tell us basic fitness data so we know how many calories we are burning when going for a push or how much weight we are gaining. Fitness forecasting will tell us what the consequences to our health will be in 12 months if we maintain our current level of activity/inactivity. Maintenance forecasting will tell us what parts of the wheelchair is going to need to be replaced or serviced. We all know that over time our front wheels get clogged up and don’t turn properly. Usually, it isn’t until they get noticeably stiff to turn that we do anything about it. A smart wheelchair will know the effort to push has increased and flag the issue long before it restricts efficiency.
The day of the active wheelchair user being reluctant to embrace electric power is fast fading. The SmartDrive has proven this fact. The thinking that using power is giving up, and you should use it or lose it, is no longer current because the new generation of wheelchair users would rather keep fit in the gym and let their chair take the strain from pushing.
Also AI and intelligent systems are going to change how we get around. Walking robots are developing very fast and, in my view, will ultimately replace wheelchairs. Already, robots can walk, jump, balance and even back flip, landing on their feet. Once these designs are streamlined and can carry enough power for a full day, we will see them become mobility devices. Walking robots do face the difficulty of a Robocop image, but in time they won’t sound like a vacuum pump when they move and they won’t be the weight of a car.
Today wheelchairs remain the only viable means of getting around if you’re paralyzed. Wheelchairs have seen off the newcomers over and over again — although FES, exoskeletons, spinal implants and calipers have all promised to change the world for us, so far none of them have. Robots are another story because the technology being developed is not just for disability mobility. The wider market appeal of walking robots will drive this technology at rocket speed. However, even when the robots have been developed, it may take years before we see them get past the FDA and other regulators, let alone reimbursement programs.
I’m excited that this sector is going to get a shake-up by the automotive firms stepping in. I was recently at Toyota headquarters in Texas — an incredible facility that flexes its muscles of wealth and success at every turn. Can you imagine an auto company taking a car from the ’80s, giving it a quick facelift and selling it as a current model? Not in a million years would consumers buy such a car. I’m hoping the auto firms will take their current, mainstream consumer-driven approach of rapid development into the mobility sector. I’m hoping in the near years ahead we will look at the wheelchairs of today and compare them to the phones we had before the world got smart.
by Rory Cooper
The pace of technological change taking place is startling. We use technologies every day that were only concepts a few years ago, and these are often used in ways never imagined by the original inventors. Of the ones that are emerging, there are a few that really stand out as “platform technologies.” If we focus on the needs of people with disabilities, primarily those with mobility impairments, the technologies that come to the forefront are found in wearable devices, machine learning, robotics and power sources.
Nearly everyone carries some kind of wearable or portable connected computing device with them, whether it is a smart phone or tablet or something else. These machines have already revolutionized people’s lives, and they have the potential to continue to do so. Wearables are also being integrated into wheelchairs and mobility devices for navigation, tracking driving profiles (e.g., to program power wheelchair controllers), and to coach us to more positive behaviors and healthier lifestyles. Yet the explosion of applications for people who are temporarily abled have only started to make an impact on the lives of mobility device users. The Virtual Seating Coach is one example that uses a portable device, machine learning, behavioral psychology and contextual awareness to help people reduce their risk of pressure injuries. In the coming years, wearable devices will be able to schedule maintenance, help people improve their push technique and maintain or attain a healthy body weight.
Machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, is the topic of many scientific debates and technological developments. As devices get smarter, they provide people with new capabilities. Of course, there are some risks too, such as privacy concerns, outside tampering and machine errors. However, machine learning will allow a powered mobility device to recognize and reconfigure itself to avoid or negotiate a large set of obstacles — a chair may descend a curb or avoid rough terrain based on the chair’s capabilities and the driver’s preferences and habits. In the home, a mobility device could simultaneously be a mobile robot and do work for you, even organizing items for the next day while you sleep.
Machine learning will also help people with mobility impairments share an on-demand self-driving vehicle. Imagine a vehicle that could come to your door and, when needed, help load your personal items, assist you entering and exiting with automatic docking and safety restraints, and then take you where you want to go. Machine learning will help to optimize personal assistance services, provide the base for technologies that enable people to stay in their homes longer while providing more comfort and safety, and enable robots to perform critical daily tasks customized to individual needs.
Anyone with experience with electronic devices big and small has experienced problems with loss of power at an inopportune time. Especially for people who use power wheelchairs, this has been a plaguing problem for years. Despite advances in batteries, lead acid batteries are still the norm, but this will change. There is growing use of more advanced battery technologies to power drones and radio-controlled vehicles. Alternative power sources have also proven viable for some specific applications — compressed air works for wet environments and shows potential for even greater improvement. Hybrid technologies have some favorable attributes as well — combustibles like natural gas or liquid propane combined with a generator and charger can grow power capacity without increasing weight. There may even be applications for impulse energy — bursts of compressed gasses or small controlled explosions to assist with short-term intermittent high-power needs, like when standing up with an exoskeleton or climbing a steep ramp.
Robots have long established themselves in industrial settings. They dominate dirty, dangerous and dull tasks. It is more challenging for robots to work in loosely structured environments, such as where people live, shop, work and play because most robots are powerful and stiff, and not very good at working in close proximity to or in contact with people. However, there are simply not enough workers to provide personal assistance to everyone who has a need — especially as most people need those services in their home — and perhaps robots or robotic devices can help fill those gaps.
For example, robotic arms mounted to wheelchairs or mobile platforms show potential, but they remain slow, weak — only able to lift a few pounds — and cumbersome to use. This will likely change as robots slowly make their way into the homes of affluent, convenience-seeking consumers, which will create an opening for the development of more assistive robots. Robots can already vacuum and mop, and in the context of a smart home system they can operate appliances, lighting and environmental controls. In the future, robots will be able to reliably recognize objects and retrieve them, organize cabinets in every room of the house, perform complex cleaning tasks, and assist with meal preparation and consumption.