Think wheelchair, and you probably think of a disabled or ill person sitting in one, being taken around by a person pushing the wheelchair. If you’re more high-tech, you would picture a person using a joystick to navigate.
Enter scenario three, where three students of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kollam, under the guidance of their professor, have developed ‘Self-E’.
This wheelchair allows for an almost hands-free and unassisted experience, where a person can merely input an indoors destination and the wheelchair will take into account the dynamic and static obstacles to take the user to their destination.
The people behind this are Ravi Teja, Sarath Srikanth and Akhil Raj, who passed out as B Tech Electronics and Communication graduates in May this year.
They were guided by Dr Rajesh Kannan Megalingam, who is an assistant professor in the department of Electronics and Communication, as well as the Director of the Humanitarian Technology Lab.
How the Self-E works
The process for developing this self-driving wheelchair started in July last year as the students’ final year project.
“We had been working to develop a gesture-operated wheelchair before this for people with paralysis and so on. After that, we wanted to make something which would allow disabled people to be independent in indoor spaces like shopping malls, homes, hospitals and airports,” Ravi tells TNM.
The Self-E uses a laser sensor-based LiDAR technology. The sensor detects the elements in the environment and creates a map of the surroundings, which is then displayed on an Android mobile application, Mudra.
The user just has to select the location on the map where they wish to go to and the wheelchair steers itself to it, taking into account the obstacles on the way.
The app can function remotely – meaning it needs neither an internet connection nor GPS. However, the phone must support Bluetooth pairing.
There are three modes in which the wheelchair can be used – manual, auto and fixed. In the manual mode, the wheelchair has to be continuously navigated by the user via the app. The fixed mode can be applied where the destination is known in advance – in commercial establishments like shopping complexes and airports, for instance. In the auto mode, the user is allowed to choose any destination on the map and the wheelchair will navigate itself there.
The need for an economical alternative
Once the process started, the team was focused on making a relatively economical model.
“As far as I know, there are three other models of self-driving wheelchairs developed by MIT, Panasonic and the University of Toronto, respectively. But all of these are steeply priced – the cost starts at Rs 5 lakh and even goes up to Rs 10 lakh because of the multiple sensors that they use,” says Dr Rajesh.
At present, the manufacturing cost of Self-E is between Rs 90,000 to 1 lakh. The team has also applied for a patent.
“We are looking for ways to commercialise the prototype. Unfortunately, we cannot bring down the cost further because the motor and some other elements we use in the wheelchair have to be imported because they are not manufactured domestically,” Rajesh says.
So far, a few companies have approached them to commercially produce the Self-E.
Facilitating the freedom to move
After the prototype was ready, the team ran trials in the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham’s medical school. Here, the wheelchair was tried by three patients, four doctors and one nurse.
“The feedback we received was very positive. It seemed that the patients were eager for the wheelchair to hit the market so that they could buy it,” Ravi shares.
“It is not as though airports and hospitals don’t have wheelchairs,” Rajesh notes, “But if you see, the occupants are always accompanied by a person who pushes the wheelchair. Now say you are in an airport and you want to stroll and shop, the pusher will not entertain that. They will just take you through the protocols and to your gate.”
With the Self-E, Rajesh and team hope to change that. “One business model we thought of is to provide a couple of these at the airport. People in need can hire these and then easily commute within the airport as they please. It will give them the freedom to move as they wish and allow them to be independent,” Rajesh explains, adding that they plan to approach the Cochin airport to try this out.