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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Will the House of Lords block Brexit?

Process, and a desire to say "I told you so" will be the real battle lines. 

It’s the people versus the peers, at least as far as some overly-excited Brexiteers are concerned. The bill to trigger Article 50 starts its passage through the House of Lords today, and with it, a row about the unelected chamber and how it ought to behave as far as Brexit is concerned.

This week will, largely, be sound and fury. More peers have signed up to speak than since Tony Blair got rid of the bulk of hereditary peers, triggering a 200-peer long queue of parliamentarians there to rage against the dying of the light, before, inevitably, the Commons prevailed over the Lords.

And to be frank, the same is ultimately going to happen with Article 50. From former SDPers, now either Labour peers or Liberal Democrat peers, who risked their careers over Europe, to the last of the impeccably pro-European Conservatives, to committed Labour and Liberal politicians, there are a number of pro-Europeans who will want to make their voices heard before bowing to the inevitable. Others, too, will want to have their “I told you so” on record should it all go belly-up.

The real battle starts next week, when the bill enters committee stage, and it is then that peers will hope to extract concessions from the government, either through defeat in the Lords or the threat of defeat in the Lords. Opposition peers will aim to secure concessions on the process of the talks, rather than to frustrate the exit.

But there are some areas where the government may be forced to give way. The Lords will seek to codify the government’s promise of a vote on the deal and to enshrine greater parliamentary scrutiny of the process, which is hard to argue against, and the government may concede that quarterly statements to the House on the process of Brexit are a price worth paying, and will, in any case, be a concession they end up making further down the line anyway.

But the big prize is the rights of EU citizens already resident here.  The Lords has the advantage of having the overwhelming majority of the public – and the promises of every senior Leaver during the referendum campaign – behind them on that issue. When the unelected chamber faces down the elected, they like to have the weight of public opinion behind them so this is a well-chosen battleground.

But as Alex Barker explains in today’s FT, the rights of citizens aren’t as easy to guarantee as they look. Do pensions count? What about the children of EU citizens? What about access to social security and health? Rights that are easy to protect in the UK are more fraught in Spain, for instance. What about a British expat, working in, say, Italy, married to an Italian, who divorces, but wishes to remain in Italy afterwards? There is general agreement on all sides that the rights of Brits living in the rest of the EU and citizens of the EU27 living here need to be respected and guaranteed. But that even areas of broad agreement are the subject of fraught negotiation shows why those “I told you sos”  may come in handy sooner than we think.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.