Singapore trials its first self-driving wheelchair at Changi General Hospital

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

SINGAPORE - The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart) is making improvements to Singapore's first self-driving wheelchair, after testing it at Changi General Hospital last September.

The autonomous vehicle (AV) is a collaborative project involving Smart, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Ten researchers worked on the device, which was first conceived about 18 months ago. The team mapped out routes in the hospital for the single autonomous wheelchair to run.

The wheelchair is able to detect stationary and moving obstacles, and is not programmed to reverse. However, during the 10-hour trial, the team found that the main sensor was not able to detect glass.

They are now considering if ultrasound sensors are needed.

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

She said nurses in hospitals spend 40 per cent 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 MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science said the self-driving wheelchair will also help hospital patients navigate through "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)."

With that in mind, Smart got Changi General Hospital on board to provide them with a testing ground. However, there are no concrete 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."