2 February 2018 • Gideon Wille
Senior official in the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport tests autonomous wheelchair
At a test location for autonomous cars in Delft, senior lecturer Rufus Fraanje gave Erik Gerritsen, the senior official in the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, a demonstration of his autonomous wheelchair Gerritsen was absolutely amazed. ‘I wondered what autonomous cars had to do with healthcare. Now I know.’
Fraanje started working two years ago on a project to realise a working prototype of an autonomous wheelchair. ‘A colleague had crushed part of his feet when paragliding. During his rehabilitation, he used an electric wheelchair but had to be extremely careful to avoid any collisions that could be disastrous for his recovery. This was what started me thinking about a wheelchair that could learn to read its own environment and thus avoid collisions.
This research project is typical of research conducted at universities of applied sciences. Fraanje: ‘People at universities focus on projects like developing new algorithms and sensors. That’s not what we do. We concentrate on developing applications. We conduct research into things like which sensors are needed and how you can get them to interact. We then apply our findings to creating a new product.’ This involves practical research, which is also shown by the use of affordable, commercially available, and often open-source technology.
A visit to a childcare facility
Both Fraanje and his students learned a lot from their visit to De Witte Vogel, a childcare facility where many children use an electric wheelchair. ‘The students organised the visit themselves. During our visit, we spoke with occupational therapists and had a good look around,’ said Fraanje. Student, Tim Boon: ‘That was when we realised that technology can help people but that it doesn’t mean anything to them unless they understand how to use it.’
Driving a tank
Boon, a student in Mechatronics, has been involved in the wheelchair project right from the start. ‘It interested me because it involves a lot of sensor technology. But the social relevance aspect was also a factor. My grandfather uses a wheelchair. He used to be in the army, and he still behaves as if he can drive a tank – even though this isn’t the case. It started me thinking. What could we do to enable someone to keep on using a wheelchair but do so independently and safely?’
Boon was working on a sub-project to see if it were possible to use a 3D camera as a sensor. ‘I was learning this and that about technology but that wasn’t the most important thing. We were looking into the technologies needed to get a wheelchair to operate independently, but what we discovered – during our visit to the childcare facility, for one thing – was that its operation is less important than its safety. An autonomous wheelchair has to be safe not only for its surroundings but also safe to use. I learned that you have to consider ergonomics and the user even when creating your basic design
Just get going
During the demonstration at the Researchlab Automated Driving Delft (RADD) test location, Secretary-General Erik Gerritsen volunteered to serve as the user himself. He eagerly took a seat in the autonomous wheelchair and listened to Fraanje’s explanation. Gerritsen realised that a prototype like this still has some flaws that have to be worked out but said: ‘This is the only way to develop something new: just get going. I talk with lots of wheelchair users, and the most important thing for them is safety. With the help afforded by this kind of technology, they can become less dependent on others. What you’re doing will make a huge contribution to the quality of their lives.’
Rufus Fraanje is a senior lecturer, teaches in the Mechatronics degree programme, and heads the Smart Sensor Systems Research Group which is running the autonomous wheelchair project.
Rufus Fraanje (left) explains to Secretary-General Erik Gerritsen how it works.