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Look ma, no hands! A Singaporean team has just made wheelchairs autonomous

Botler’s smart two-wheel attachment won the team top prize at the MIT Hacking Medicine Robotics Singapore 2017.

Last year, e27 profiled a startup that turns any wheelchair into a motorised transport. Now, another Singaporean team is taking that one step further — self-driving wheelchairs.

At the MIT Hacking Robotics Singapore 2017, the team led by Kok Yuan Yik, competed with 83 participants to see who could come up with the most innovative solution to address the country’s growing need for elderly care.

The MIT Hacking Robotics Singapore 2017 was a two-day robotics hackathon, held in partnership with deep-tech focused collaboration centre SGInnovate.

All teams were required to use Loomo, a small two-wheeled robotics platform built by Segway, which has an SDK, hardware extension and bay so that software developers can create customised solutions.

Loomo has a suite of smart features which include facial and voice recognition systems, location-tracking and mapping capabilities (which it can do so autonomously). In addition, it can travel up to 17.7 km/h, for a maximum distance of 29 km before it needs to recharge.

For the runner-up winning teams such DORI and Nurse On Wheels, they transformed Loomo into a personal care assistant, but for Kok, it was all about fusing low tech with smart tech.

Letting wheelchairs drive themselves

Their solution, Botler, essentially turned Loomo into a wheelchair attachment that would not only enable wheelchairs to be motorised, but also self-driving.

“We observed the challenges faced when hiring caregivers and the labour intensity involved in managing wheelchair users. Thus, we asked ourselves why not ‘hack’ Loomo to autonomously ferry the wheelchair users around?” Kok told e27.

Using an app, healthcare workers would be able to move wheelchair-bound patients to their desired location without lifting a finger. They would also be able to track these patients and talk to them through the app — a solution that is critical for patients stricken with cognitive disabilities such as dementia.

Kok said one of the issues the team faced was getting the Botler to dock with the wheelchairs autonomously.

Eventually, they were able to devise a universal adapter that could be attached to most wheelchairs and a magnetic docking mechanism that is connected to Loomo.

“Other than the capability to attach itself to the wheelchair autonomously, the mechanism would also need to be adapted to the unique driving behaviour of a self-balancing Segway. To also make it fully autonomous, we included a self-charging capability which was incorporated into the Botler docking mechanism further adding to its complexity,” Kok explained further.

The team said there are other kinks to work out before Botler can be safely deployed. For example, the maximum speed of the Botler needs to be reduced to prevent the patient from being thrown out in the event of a sudden stop. Its Field-Of-Vision (FOV) also needs to be wider to detect obstacles.

Still, Botler’s ingenious use of the Loomo won Kok and his team a US$5,000 in prize money. The team also received the Loomo, access to prototyping facility labs, as well as funding to build and launch their solution commercially.

Additionally, they will be taking part in an on-stage panel at the EmTech Asia 2017, a tech conference hosted by the MIT Technology Review.

With Singapore experiencing an worrisome rise in patients with dementia, a solution like Botler would help ease the strain of healthcare workers.