Robotic Wheelchair Uses Lasers to Dock Like a Spaceship

A robotic wheelchair that loads itself into its owner's car using the same principles as a spaceship does when docking, has been developed by a team from Pennsylvania. An on-board computer uses LIDAR, or light detecting and ranging, to position the chair when it is loaded into a vehicle—exactly the same technique used by the space truck Jules Verne when it dropped in on the ISS last month.

The original idea was to use a camera and let the wheelchair user negotiate the passage of the wheelchair onto his or her vehicle's forklift attachment that lifts the wheelchair aboard. However, after this method proved to be too difficult, they went with plan B. This used an onboard computer that recognised the LIDAR system, used by the Jules Verne. It bounces laser light off two reflectors that are placed in the arm rests of the chair, keeping tabs on the chair's position and lining it up with the lifting device.

With a 97.5 percent success rate in tests, the project, a collaboration between researchers at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and a company called Freedom Sciences, is expected to go into production. The price is expected to be around US$30,000. [NewScientist]