The Jakarta Post
Up close: Features of the high-tech wheelchair include human tracking, speech recognition and head navigation. (JP/Nedi Putra AW)
An invention by nine researchers from Brawijaya University’s School of Computer Science in Malang, East Java, is not your usual electric wheelchair. The high-tech vehicle developed by the Computer Vision Research Group is larger than typical wheelchairs and comes with special wheels.
Group coordinator Fitri Utaminingrum said the wheelchair was designed to facilitate the mobility of people with limited ability to move — from light immobility to severe paralysis.
“We’ve developed this chair by integrating an Intel NUC A7 mini processor, a battery for power supply, a camera, a display monitor and a driver motor,” she explained.
The wheelchair, which can support a body weight of up to 100 kilograms, offers such features as human tracking, speech recognition and voice navigation, head navigation, remote navigation via a cell phone and manual chair control from a mini monitor instead of a joystick.
Fitri acknowledged that a computer-supported wheelchair had previously been developed by researchers from another campus, which could even be operated by mind control.
“But we’ve been striving to make it more practical, because if we applied the mind instruction method, various devices would have to be attached to the user’s head,” she said.
Fitri said the features could be implemented as required by the user’s condition.
For instance, those with hand or foot disability or total paralysis can benefit from human tracking and speech recognition, while human tracking enables the wheelchair to follow an assistant or guide in front with the use of a camera attached to the chair, so that the assistant can guide without pushing the chair.
“Recognition must first be enabled through the initial registration of markers for the detection of key points on the assistant’s body,” Fitri said.
She said the marking should be specific, because the camera could make mistakes in identifying the assistant if obstructed by another person dressed in the same color nearby.
Speech recognition or voice navigation helps people who can’t move their hands. Voice instructions are processed by the computer to steer the wheelchair.
On the move: Fakih, a disabled student of Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java, tries out a smart wheelchair developed at the university. (JP/Nedi Putra AW)
For more severely disabled users who are unable to move their hands and speak, head navigation is very useful. They can operate the wheelchair with their head movements, which are caught by a camera facing the user.
Fitri also pointed out the remote navigation feature operated by a cell phone. “The assistant will find it easier to control the wheelchair, especially under certain circumstances,” she said.
Fitri admitted that the smart wheelchair was still in the early stage of development with all its limitations, including the room conditions required. “Different lighting affects its tracking performance, which poses a constraint to be overcome by further research to make it usable outside,” she added.
Its current price is also relatively high. The Intel NUC A7 mini processor for this wheelchair alone costs about Rp 9 million (US$667).
Six months of research to create the wheelchair have cost Rp200 million, which came from research funds given to the college by the Research, Technology and Higher Education Ministry.
The group is in the process of registering patents for the algorithms for human tracking, speech navigation and head movement, but not yet for the overall integrated system.
“After technical improvements in the next stages, we hope industrial circles will be interested in cooperating, so that mass production can be realized to lower the price to a more affordable level,” she said.
With her team members —Dahnial Syauqy, Randy Cahya Wihandika, M Ali Fauzy, Putra Pandu Adikara, Yuita Arum Sari, Sigit Adinugroho and two students, Tahajuda Mandariansah and Harits Abdurrohman, she is also developing another feature to direct the chair to a specific destination and an eye-control instruction method.
“All this requires profound research, so that the smart wheelchair facilities for disabled people can be safely and comfortably used. Moreover, this product hasn’t yet been systematically tested,” she admitted.
Fakih, a 21-year-old disabled student from Brawijaya University, is grateful for the work going into the development of the smart wheelchair. “I hope it will be available at a reasonable price after mass production,” said the student.
However, Fakih noted that a sophisticated wheelchair may not work effectively without the support of appropriate infrastructure, as public buildings, roads and sidewalks are often inaccessible for disabled citizens.
“Infrastructure in public places should also support all members of the public, including disabled people, so that wheelchairs and sticks for the blind can work properly,” he says.