Applying lessons from self-driving cars to self-driving wheelchairs

Technologies like 3D scanning can be used to help wheelchair operators move more independently.

Self-driving cars are going to be A Big Deal, but advancements in autonomy aren’t restricted to that one class of vehicle. Wheelchair users could also end up benefitting from advancements in robotics.

In this case, we’re not talking about electric wheelchairs that can be programmed with a destination just like a car, as nice as that would be. Instead, this is about the subtle improvements to mobility that can be found by integrating autonomous technology into wheelchairs, for those who find accurate control difficult.

I’ve just become aware of “Robotic Adaptation to Humans Adapting to Robots” (or Radhar), an EU-funded initiative that, since 2010, has been “building a system that can develop better wheelchairs for children suffering from multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy or a variety of other syndromes, such as autism and hereditary muscles diseases.”

It finished development in September, and the idea is that people who have disabilities which prevent them using manual wheelchairs are also likely to find it tricky to steer the big, battery-powered electric ones. That could mean banging into walls, knocking things over, and even causing injury.

That said, it’s not particularly useful to make completely autonomous wheelchairs - that’s not great for giving people a sense of freedom and control in their lives. Instead, a better method is to smooth out jerky journeys, estimating where it thinks its owner wants to go and making subtle alterations to the journey route that leave the user feeling absolutely in control, without the sensation of being ferried around.

It does this using two Kinect cameras. One scans the environment ten times per second, building a basic map. The on-board computer uses this to spot obstacles, doorways, and other possible destinations that a user might want to head towards. Five times every second it generates a range of different routes that the wheelchair user could take - these are used to make sure that the wheelchair’s movement is smooth.

One of Radhar’s videos shows trials that were run at a school in Begium to see which wheelchair users might benefit from such a system:

A further clever bit is that the second camera scans the wheelchair user, assuming that the destination correlates with the direction of gaze. It also recognises if someone has a part of their body sticking out to the side, and knows to warn of the danger of hitting something as a result. Think of it a little like the way many cars come with systems that kick in to help drivers when they skid over a patch of ice, or brake suddenly.

The idea is that this is a system you’d have installed in your wheelchair when you’re young, and you’d use it for the rest of your life. It would learn from you, but you would learn from it, too - and, to paraphrase Futurama, it will work best when it feels like it's not doing anything at all.

A wheelchair sign. Photo: (Sean McGrath/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia