Research team trials self-driving wheelchair

Winnie Tan from the Straits Times tries the SMART self-driving wheelchair, an autonomous vehicle developed by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. VIDEO: SMART
The self-driving wheelchair moving along a mapped-out route at the National University of Singapore. It was piloted at Changi General Hospital last September.
The self-driving wheelchair moving along a mapped-out route at the National University of Singapore. It was piloted at Changi General Hospital last September.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

A team of 10 researchers is making improvements to Singapore's first self-driving wheelchair after a pilot trial at Changi General Hospital (CGH) last September.

The autonomous vehicle is a project involving the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart), Massachusetts Institute of Technology and National University of Singapore.

The wheelchair is able to detect stationary and moving obstacles, and is not programmed to reverse - a built-in safety feature.

The team first conceived the idea about 18 months ago and went about mapping out routes in the hospital for the AV to run. During the pilot, the team found that the main sensor was not able to detect glass doors. They are now mulling over using ultrasound sensors.

Professor Daniela Rus, the principal investigator, explained the need for such a wheelchair.

She said nurses in hospitals spend a considerable amount of their time looking for wheelchairs and carts for their patients. "More time can be spent on patient care and less time on logistics," she said.

The electrical engineering and computer science professor said that the self-driving wheelchair will also help hospital patients navigate "complex networks of hospital hallways", and help move patients after they have completed surgical procedures.

"When we visited several retirement communities, we realised that the quality of life is dependent on mobility," she said. "We want to make it really easy for people to move around."

Hence, Smart got CGH on board to provide them with a testing ground. However, there are no plans yet for implementation.

"I see a technology that is ready," said Prof Rus. "But we need to see how humans want to interact with the vehicle, and then make adjustments."

Sats also unveiled its version of semi-autonomous wheelchairs during a two-day event that started on Wednesday. The ground handling firm and food solutions provider said the wheelchairs will raise productivity and efficiency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'Research team trials self-driving wheelchair'. Print Edition | Subscribe