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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times