Illinois team awarded NSF funding for robotic wheelchair

9/27/2020 Vincent Lara-Cinisomo and Bill Bowman

Written by Vincent Lara-Cinisomo and Bill Bowman

Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler
Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler

MechSE Professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler is leading a team of Illinois engineers, designers, and disability experts that has been awarded a $1.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the National Robotics Initiative Program. Their goal is to develop a robotic wheelchair that provides individuals with physical disabilities a new and novel mode of mobility.

The project, called Personalized Unique Rolling Experience (PURE), offers users elegant, organic, hands-free movement using an interactive and adaptive robot that is uniquely personalized for each user. Designed to be discreet, minimalistic, lightweight and safe, PURE seeks to create life- enhancing opportunities for daily wheelchair users while preserving long-term health and wellness.

“We envision breaking the mold of the traditional wheelchair through exploration of a safe, compact, adaptive ball-based robot (ballbot), where the rider sits on a sleek modular robot that is driven by a single large ball,” the team stated in its project summary. “Robot movement and speed are managed hands-free through direct physical interaction control by leaning the torso in the desired direction [similar to a Segway scooter]. The use of a single spherical wheel (a ball) allows for unique movement in any direction, or ‘omnidirectional’ movement.”

The project addresses many of the shortcomings of manual wheelchairs, which often cause upper extremity overuse injuries, require both hands for propulsion, have limited operation on certain terrains or tight spaces, and can tip easily, resulting in possible falls and injuries. It provides a much more nimble alternative than powered wheelchairs, which are heavy, large, have limited use in tight spaces, and require ramp/lift-equipped vehicles for transport.

PURE’s footprint is smaller than a manual wheelchair’s, being no larger than the user’s body dimensions while seated, providing access to smaller spaces such as inaccessible public restroom stalls. This compact footprint and enhanced movement options, including spinning in place and sliding to the side, are advantages of choosing the base of PURE to be a ballbot that includes three sets of motor-driven omnidirectional wheels around the ball. PURE will also feature advanced control options, such as driver assistance, obstacle avoidance and self-navigation with pre-programmed locations.

The PURE team includes: principal investigator Hsiao-Wecksler and Assistant Professor João Ramos from MechSE, along with co-principal investigator Professor Deana McDonagh of the School of Art and Design; co-principal investigator Clinical Associate Professor William Norris of the Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering; and senior personnel from the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES)  in the College of Applied Health Sciences (AHS)— Adam Bleakney (head coach, Men's and Women's Track, Field, and Racing), Dr. Patricia Malik (recently retired director of DRES), and Dr. Jeannette Elliott (head physical therapist). Four mechanical engineering graduate students —Chenzhang Xiao, Yu Chen, Yinan Pei, and Seung Yun (Leo) Song — have been involved in the project.

“We wanted to design something that would break the mold of traditional wheelchairs, which has been essentially a chair supported between two large drive wheels with two casters, and has not changed since the first patents awarded in the 1860s,” said Hsiao-Wecksler.

From left, University of Illinois wheelchair track team coach Adam Bleakney and graduate student researchers Chenzhang Xiao, Yu Chen and Seung Yun Song are shown Friday with the ballbot that will be used to drive their new PURE wheelchair at the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory. Photo by Chenzhang Xiao.
From left, University of Illinois wheelchair track team coach Adam Bleakney and graduate student researchers Chenzhang Xiao, Yu Chen and Seung Yun Song are shown Friday with the ballbot that will be used to drive their new PURE wheelchair at the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory. Photo by Chenzhang Xiao.

She said the project was started in 2018 in response to the call for “radical improvements in the mobility and independence of people with lower-limb paralysis through smarter assistive technology” by the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge. Illinois’ project was short-listed in the top 10 out of 80 world-wide applications for the Toyota Challenge, but only the top five submissions were funded.

Unthwarted, the team recently submitted an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and continue to seek additional support to fund further research development and product commercialization.

As coach of the Illinois wheelchair track team, Bleakney knows about the chronic overuse of shoulders and elbows by his athletes. But as a daily wheelchair user himself, he also knows about the challenges of navigating life.

Bleakney had worked with Toyota on a previous project, so he was intrigued by the opportunity.

“The intent was to achieve an interdisciplinary effort, to combine the tradition and knowledge we have at DRES and AHS as leaders in disability access with the incredible resources that exist across campus,” he said.

“And Pat, Jeannette Elliott, Arielle Rausin, and I each bring a unique and personal disability experience perspective to the project. Pat, who’s married to a daily wheelchair user, Jeanette, who in addition to being the physical therapist at DRES uses a prosthesis and manual wheelchair, and Arielle and me as daily wheelchair users.”

Although Bleakney works with some of the best wheelchair athletes in the country, including multi-marathon winner Daniel Romanchuk, he knows there is a broader application for PURE.

“It's (for) all daily wheelchair users and other individuals with a lower limb mobility impairment. So we do envision that it would be a mobility device that can be used by both daily wheelchair users and others that don't necessarily always use a wheelchair but would perhaps use some other some other form of accessible mobility in certain situations.”

The device’s name—PURE—came about as a result of a team meeting, Hsiao-Wecksler said. “We wanted to express the organic and pure nature of using lean-to-steer technology to propel the device, rather than requiring constant occupation of the hands such as with a manual wheelchair,” she said. “This mobility device will utilize personalized driving calibration to accommodate different trunk function abilities and custom seating of each user. The design is a uniquely different mode of rolling instead of the traditional wheelchair with two drive wheels and castors. And it will be a wonderful mobility experience for the user.”

Bleakney stressed PURE’s ability to address long-term health and wellness and safety.

“We look at how can we decrease acute injuries that may occur from falling,” he said. “And we wanted to mitigate that risk, but also mitigate the risk posed to the shoulders from pushing a wheelchair around on a daily basis.”

And McDonagh said, “health is not just the absence of disease. Health is connected with one's sense of independence, mobility and ability to live the life you need to live. This device will enable the user to traverse a more diverse terrain while holding a coffee in one hand!  Or holding the hand of a loved one. We are blending the functional with the emotional needs of real people.”

The PURE design describes it as “discreet,” which McDonagh said refers to “seeing the person before the chair—which translates to seeing the person before the disability.”

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This story was published September 27, 2020.