Thick gravel, mud, snow, steep ramps or hills ... they might get a pedestrian a little dirty or out of breath, but to someone in an electric wheelchair, they could mean terrain that's simply too difficult to cross alone.
Engineers have developed automatic terrain-sensing controls for military robotic vehicles, and several four-wheel-drive automobiles now on the market include such controls for improved safety. So why not integrate this type of system into electric-powered wheelchairs to provide more mobility and independence for injured warfighters?
A team from Florida State University and the University of Pittsburgh began experiments this year to add instrumentation based on current driving control systems. The new technology is designed to enable an electric-powered wheelchair to automatically detect hazardous terrain and implement safe driving strategies while avoiding wheel slip, sinkage or vehicle tipping.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center saw the promise in this collaboration and has provided funding and guidance for the team to pursue their ideas together. The partnership joins Florida's Center for Intelligent Systems, Control and Robotics, which has worked extensively with control and guidance of autonomous vehicles, with Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories. This latter group has developed several assistive technologies already in use by wheelchair manufacturers and rehabilitation hospitals nationwide.
Mechanical engineering professor Dr. Emmanuel Collins directs the Center for Intelligent Systems, Control and Robotics. He said that, to his knowledge, no one else is working on this type of application. The partnership began when Collins heard a presentation by University of Pittsburgh rehabilitation science and technology department chair Dr. Rory Cooper, who directs HERL. Cooper has used a wheelchair since receiving a spinal cord injury in 1980 during his service in the U.S. Army. He won a bronze medal in the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul and has been recognized nationally for his research and leadership efforts to aid veterans and others with spinal cord injuries.
In his presentation, Cooper mentioned the need for terrain-dependent electric-powered wheelchair assistance. Collins approached him about working together, and the two of them began developing ideas with other collaborators at the National Science Foundation-sponsored Quality of Life Technology Center, an engineering research center affiliated with HERL that Cooper co-directs.
Cooper is also the founding director and a senior research scientist of the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Center of Excellence in Pittsburgh. HERL has been collaborating with the VA for 15 years, and with the military since 2004, to develop robotic and other advanced assistive technologies. Cooper noted that they have a very good relationship with the orthopedic and rehabilitation departments of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center.
Maj. Kevin Fitzpatrick, director of WRAMC's wheelchair clinic, said, "This technology will provide electric-powered wheelchair users with an increased degree of independence that may significantly increase their ability to participate in recreational and functional activities."
The project is part of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology subportfolio, recently managed by Dr. Craig Carignan, within TATRC's Advanced Prosthetics and Human Performance research portfolio. Said Carignan, "HERL and the Pittsburgh VA center are considered among the top wheelchair testers in the United States, and are playing critical roles in developing international wheelchair standards. The researchers on this project are excellent investigators, and we are looking forward to the solution they develop."
Noted Collins, "I'm inspired by the idea of applying technology originally meant for the battlefield to improve the quality of everyday life for injured warfighters."
Collins estimates that if the team develops a strong commercial partner, this technology could be assisting electric wheelchair users in approximately five years.