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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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