Old technology met the 21st century when three Utah State University students developed a specialized wheelchair designed to better assist persons with disabilities.
The students created a 'following' wheelchair - essentially the device allows a person unable to control their wheelchair themselves to follow a caretaker without any assistance.
Jeanne Munk, Clint Fernelius and Tyler Travis are engineering students working on their senior project for electrical and computer engineering.
Munk said, “We make both of them more independent. The person can walk along side of it and talk and have a conversation with the person in the chair.”
The students went to the Utah Assistive Technology Lab's Clay Christensen for assistance on the disability aspect as well as to learn about the mechanics of the power wheelchair.
"We talked about what types of disabilities this chair could benefit, like Multiple sclerosis or ALS," Christensen said.
He helped the students with the mechanical aspect of the chair to create an ideal foundation.
"I used an Invacare wheelchair and took the motors off, and put on Pride motors. It was a very custom job," Christensen said.
The students took it from there to do the electrical work. Munk said the most challenging aspect of the project is the technology used in the chair.
We are basing the following technology on image processing,” Munk said. “How it works is we have a leader badge and there is a camera that determines the distance from that badge.”
In layman terms, the chair uses sonar sensors to ping its location. For example, if the chair gets too close to a wall, the sensors move the chair the other direction.
While some experimental prototypes of this kind of device exist, there really isn't anything on the current market like it, Christensen said.
Munk said the new chair has capabilities of improving the lives of both individuals involved. The team believes that this project is a great building block for the next generation of wheelchairs.
The Utah AT Lab plans to do just that - Christensen wants the chair to go through a second-phase design.
"This time around, we want input from community members with disabilities that could benefit from such a device," he said. "Their opinion of the performance of the device is the one that matters most."