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Autonomous Chair

Motorized wheelchairs grant many people mobility, but they’re of little use to those unable to manipulate a joystick or controller. A new wheelchair that navigates on its own could help such people get around. Engineers Steven Skaar of the University of Notre Dame and Linda Fehr of the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, IL, developed the chair using off-the-shelf parts. Skaar and Fehr outfitted a motorized wheelchair with two video cameras, a pair of wheel rotation sensors, and a laptop computer. As a caretaker pushes the chair along a route-from the kitchen to the study, say-its cameras track small elliptical markers on the wall. The team’s software uses that information, along with data from the sensors, to record the route. Once the chair has been programmed, the user can choose a route from a menu by speaking, moving an eyebrow, or making some other simple motion; the chair will automatically travel the path. In initial tests, Fehr says, a volunteer who had been pushed in his wheelchair for 30 years mastered the system in minutes. The team hopes to start recruiting for larger tests in the next six months.

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