The technology has the potential to serve as a person's feet, hands and eyes and thus restore his/her ability to interact with environment.
Using a five-year, 480,000-dollar National Science Foundation grant received in June, lead author John Spletzer, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, and his colleagues have developed a prototype chair designed specifically for negotiating sidewalks, parking lots and other outdoor areas.
As with other smart wheelchairs designed in the past, Spletzer's device uses a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) system to detect trees, poles, parking meters, corners and other real-world obstacles.
A key difference is that this chair will cross-reference the maps it makes of its surroundings using LiDAR and other sensors with 3-D maps that Spletzer and his team create and load into its memory.
To complement the chair's ability to recognize and avoid stationary obstacles, the researchers are also planning to write software that will help the chair predict and avoid moving obstacles such as pedestrians and cars.
"My work aims to push the envelope in wheelchair autonomy. It will not be limited to structured indoor environments. Instead, it investigates the much more difficult problem of autonomous operations in unstructured environments outdoors," Spletzer said.