The Fraunhofer IPA has played a key role in developing the first ever robotic wheelchair with the Human Engineering Research Lab (HERL) in Pittsburg. Called “MeBot”, it is the first wheelchair capable of climbing steps and mounting curbs on its own.
Steps and curbs currently pose a significant issue for wheelchair users. Even the most modern technologies are unable to surmount these obstacles automatically. This means that users frequently have to ask for help, or require the installation of ramps and other aids in order to overcome these obstacles.
It is hoped that the “MeBot” will provide a solution to this issue. The base of the robot is a pedestal with six wheels arranged in pairs. The central and largest wheel unit is for driving, while the forward and rear wheel units are for steering. All three pairs of wheels can move horizontally and vertically, independently of each other. As soon as the robot detects an obstacle, the first pair of wheels extends, lifting the vehicle. The middle unit then rises independently which lifts the vehicle over the edge. The final pair of wheels then follows. In this way the robot is able to mount obstacles, bit by bit, like a caterpillar.
Key to MeBot’s ability to do this is the integrated a radar unit developed by the Fraunhofer IPA, which accurately detects obstacles like stairs and triggers the automated mounting process. For this to happen, the system emits beams, which measure the height of the step or curb. This data allows the steering unit to determine exactly how the wheelchair needs to be positioned in order to mount the obstacle. If the wheelchair is parallel with the object, the automated mounting process is launched and the step is mounted. Radar was chosen over laser and other technologies because it is less susceptible to environmental influences.
The MeBot is not the only innovation to have been jointly developed by Fraunhofer IPA and the HERL. The two institutes have collaborated in the field of military and civil rehabilitation for many years. Together, the two partners have worked on a number of developments, including a pneumatically driven wheelchair.
Photo credit: “www.colourbox.com”. Material used in the preparation of this article has been drawn from Fraunhofer IPA.