At MIT researchers are working on a self-navigating wheelchair that can learn the geography around it through simple voice commands, and then travel around using the map created within its computer brain.
Unlike other attempts to program wheelchairs or other mobile devices, which rely on an intensive process of manually capturing a detailed map of a building, the MIT system can learn about its environment in much the same way as a person would: By being taken around once on a guided tour, with important places identified along the way. For example, as the wheelchair is pushed around a nursing home for the first time, the patient or a caregiver would say: “this is my room” or “here we are in the foyer” or “nurse’s station.”
Outdoors in the open, such systems can rely on GPS receivers to figure out where they are, but inside buildings that method usually doesn’t work, so other approaches are needed. Roy and Teller have been exploring the use of WiFi signals, as well as wide-field cameras and laser rangefinders, coupled to computer systems that can construct and localize within an internal map of the environment as they move around.
For now, the wheelchair prototype relies on a WiFi system to make its maps and then navigate through them, which requires setting up a network of WiFi nodes around the facility in advance. After months of preliminary tests on campus, they have begun trials in a real nursing home environment with real patients, at the Boston Home in Dorchester, a facility where all of the nearly 100 patients have partial or substantial loss of muscle control and use wheelchairs.
Press release: Robot wheelchair finds its own way…