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When the creators of The Jetsons imagined the automated world of the year 2062, they assumed robot technology would take care of life’s drudgery — shopping, washing dishes, vacuuming. We still hold on to that fantasy, even as we embrace a time in which microcomputers enhance our lives in countless invisible ways. Who wouldn’t want a robot that could change diapers? Admittedly today’s reality is subtler, but it’s no less exciting. Autonomous vehicle technology. Self-compensating drive control. Predictive maintenance apps. A virtual seating coach. All of these things are happening now in wheelchair technology — and they’re transforming our mobility, health and independence in this lifetime.
Two sleek, futuristic wheelchairs drove themselves through Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport this past August, one obediently following the other like a friendly robotic dog. They smoothly navigated a turn, traversed bumpy grates and sedately pulled up alongside a group of reporters who were there to record the future.
Their short journey is a promising sign of where the future of power wheelchair design is headed. Why? Because the first chair autonomously traveled to a woman standing nearby who summoned it using her cellphone, and the second followed independently.
The chairs were part of a demonstration of a new project to shuttle passengers through the airport when Japan hosts the 2020 Olympics. While these specific chairs will likely be of little use for most wheelchair users, the underlying technology — state-of-the-art mapping software and built-in sensors to avoid running into obstacles — could change the way you drive your power wheelchair, or … the way it drives you.
With all the similarities between driverless chairs and driverless cars, it makes sense that the autonomous chairs are made by WHILL, a company founded by former Japanese auto designers. They are not the only auto industry players getting involved in the mobility world. In 2016, Japanese car maker Nissan showcased the ProPilot, a self-driving chair designed for customers to sit on while waiting in line at restaurants. When the first person in line leaves their chair to go inside, the chair goes to the back of the line and the other chairs move forward.
And if you watched even a fraction of the recent Olympics, you probably saw at least five ads for Toyota’s “Start Your Impossible” campaign. Instead of just featuring Toyota’s traditional vehicles, each ad ended with quick shots of disabled athletes and an array of non-traditional mobility devices, including a peek at the long-promised iBot II. That didn’t happen by chance.
“Toyota believes that ‘mobility’ goes well beyond cars and that movement is a human right. This campaign, and our partnership with The Olympic and Paralympic Games, are a reflection of our commitment to providing freedom of movement for all,” said Ed Laukes, group vice president, Toyota Division Marketing, Toyota Motor North America, in an interview with CNET.
This overlap between the auto industry and the mobility industry is not new. It turns out many varieties of self-driving chairs are already being tested, and power chairs have had some of the “smart” features we might more readily associate with autonomous cars for quite a while.
Some of the similarities are obvious, like the integration of hands-free wireless technology, but you may not even know of others you’ve been taking advantage of every time you roll out. The impact is already huge, and will continue to grow, touching every aspect of chairs — from the drive systems, to how they navigate, to maintenance, to actually helping you monitor your health. It won’t happen overnight, and there are real challenges involving funding and regulations, but it is coming.
Dubbed the WHILL NEXT, the aforementioned driverless chairs look almost identical to WHILL’s better-known models, the Model A and the Model M. But unlike the A and M, NEXT — which WHILL and co-designer Panasonic refer to as a “mobility robot” — was designed specifically to transport ambulatory people who have difficulty walking long distances.
Airport visitors will be able to summon a WHILL NEXT by tapping on a smartphone app. The chair self-drives to their location, picks them up and delivers them to their destination. The app will even tell them how long it will take to get to their gate. With the aging population, it is easy to envision a growing market for similar mobility devices at resorts, malls, parks and other expansive destinations.
Ted Fagenson, former vice president of sales and marketing at WHILL, explains the simple economic incentive behind the chairs. “It costs X amount of dollars to pay an employee to push a person from the check-in terminal to the boarding area of the airplane. If you are doing that a thousand times a day, that adds up to a lot of money in labor. It is going to be economical for the airline, and for the user it will be a much better experience,” says Fagenson.
Testing of the NEXT at Haneda is expected to have been completed by March 2018.
While cool, the NEXT technology isn’t quite what full-time chair users need. “We would love an autonomous power chair that could navigate any sidewalk, and/or chairs that can perform obstacle avoidance for people using sip-and-puff or head array controls, but the technology isn’t there yet,” says Mark Smith, general manager of public relations for Pride Mobility/Quantum Rehab. “Obstacle avoidance and autonomous technology is moving into the power chair market for indoor use in the coming years because it’s easy for sensors to avoid vertical objects on a flat indoor surface, but outdoors is another story. Current technology can’t tell a puddle from a dark patch from a pot hole. And current sensors aren’t capable of distinguishing between curb angles, or if a curb is shaded by a tree.”
For now, the closest manifestation of this technology lies in the WHILL Model A’s iPhone app, which allows users to summon and drive their Model A. Imagine being able to easily move your chair away from a sofa or bed after transferring or being able to call it to you in a crowded room.
Emily Oakley, of Campbell, California, takes full advantage of the app whenever she is out with her WHILL. Oakley, 44, is able to walk, but has multiple sclerosis and uses the Model A to do what her body won’t always let her. The Model A is called a personal electric vehicle rather than a power wheelchair because it has not been submitted to the FDA for review and is typically not covered under insurance.
“I’ve always been very active and having four-wheel drive on the Model A enables me to go hiking again,” she says. The app comes in handy when she and her husband, Ken, are out and about. Oakley prefers to transfer into a regular seat at restaurants. She can then use the remote to drive the chair out of the way, usually into a corner. And when she transfers into the front seat of their van, she uses the remote to drive the Model A around the back of the van and onto the rear lift.
Sticking to the Straight and Narrow
The idea of software that keeps your wheelchair going in a straight line may not be quite as sexy as the possibility of ghost-driving your chair via remote, but for many users, such software is invaluable. Self-compensating drive control is one of the earliest smartchair systems, and it is so seamlessly integrated that most wheelers aren’t even aware it is on their chair.
It’s basically the wheelchair equivalent of the lane centering technology that is being rolled out on many high-end automobiles. Just like lane centering technology keeps your car in the lane, self-compensating drive control autonomously corrects a chair’s direction, keeping it going where controller input intended by compensating for uneven or bumpy surfaces. This makes driving with a joystick easier because you don’t have to make constant corrections while cruising down a sidewalk, path or off-camber surface.
Self-compensating drive makes a huge difference for those who use a switch control, like sip-and-puff or a head switch, to drive. Before self-compensating systems existed, a driver using switch input would have to make continuous adjustments to keep a chair going straight. Wheeling on sidewalks and streets required so much input to control the chair that it was difficult to carry on a conversation or enjoy the scenery. Self-compensating drive enables a switch driver to give an input and the chair stays in the intended direction until another input is given, which enables the driver to relax, talk and enjoy their surroundings.
G-TRAC automatic course correction lets Kenny Salvini keep his head on the game.
Kenny Salvini, a C3-4 quad and frequent NEW MOBILITY contributor, drives an Invacare TDX SP using an ASL head array switch input control. He taps his head on a switch to his right or left to turn, while a switch at the back of his head controls forward, speed, stop and reverse inputs. He is a believer in G-TRAC, Invacare’s self-compensating drive system. “For a brief time, I didn’t have G-TRAC, and wow, it really gave me an appreciation for it. The road I wheel on in front of my house has a mild arc for water drainage and I had to constantly re-hit the switch input to course correct. It was fairly maddening to say the least and really gave me an appreciation of how important self-compensating drive control is.”
All the major power chair manufacturers now offer some sort of self-compensating drive control. Invacare has G-TRAC, Quickie has SureTrac, Quantum Rehab has Accu-Trac and Permobil has the boldly named Enhanced Steering Performance. Iterations of self-compensating drive control have been around since 2001, but manufacturers are continually working to improve it, resulting in new additions like Invacare’s Adaptive Load Compensation. It provides autonomous adjustments for consistent low speed driving on different surfaces from concrete, to padded carpet to grass. In addition, ALC adjusts motors as they wear so the ride stays consistent. For the wheelchair user, this means that ALC keeps the chair at a steady speed over changing surface textures, in addition to staying on the intended course.
Fix Problems Before They Start
You can’t keep on course if your chair isn’t working. Thankfully, a new wave of predictive maintenance apps is aiming to make it easier to keep your wheels on the road and not in the shop. Car drivers have grown so used to oil check warnings, tire pressure lights and other built-in warning systems that they take them for granted. But put similar systems on a power wheelchair and they could make the difference between getting out of the house and waiting weeks to months for someone to service what is often a minor problem.
Predictive maintenance apps continuously monitor the systems in your power chair. They allow you to see the basics, like battery status, driving habits and distance traveled, while also enabling real-time troubleshooting of error codes on your smartphone and sending complex information about systems on your chair to your dealer. This can make it easier to solve minor problems, like a joystick that suddenly isn’t working because a wheel-lock or attendant control is engaged.
A quick look at the predictive maintenance app on your phone will either show the problem or bring up a phone link to your dealer, who can look at your chair on their computer screen and diagnose the problem live. This would save the user down time and the dealer a service call. Sharing detailed information about your chair’s status with the dealer also allows you both to see if maintenance is coming up and plan for it well before parts fail.
Research done at Human Engineering Research Laboratories at University of Pittsburgh shows that waiting for parts can leave a power chair user without access to their chair for an average of three months.