An affordable, self-driving wheelchair may soon roll onto the market, with help from this student

An affordable, self-driving wheelchair is the latest innovation being worked on at a summer internship program at the University of Toronto, and it could be rolling out very soon.

Xinyi Li, a mechanical engineering student from China, is in Toronto on a 12-week internship

Xinyi Li, a mechanical engineering student from China, stands with the self-driving wheelchair she helped develop this summer at the University of Toronto. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

An affordable, self-driving wheelchair is the latest innovation being worked on at a summer internship program at the University of Toronto, and it could be rolling out very soon.

Xinyi Li, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student from Zhejiang University in China, is in Toronto on a 12-week internship funded by Mitacs Globalink.

"The wheelchair is amazing. It has a sensor that detects the objects without hands, and if you set the destination and current position of the wheelchair it will go by itself," she said during a demonstration of the chair in the atrium of the Bahen Centre at the University of Toronto.

Mathilde Hede, an engineer for the robotics company Cyberworks, programs one of two autonomous wheelchair prototypes to move down the hallway at the University of Toronto. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

She is one of 31 students from around the world who have been brought to Toronto by the not-for-profit program to work on various leading-edge research projects.

Cyberworks Robotics is the company that owns the project and started the collaboration with U of T, among other schools, two years ago. The company developed the world's first autonomous robot more than 30 years ago.

Cyberworks' CEO, Vivek Burhanpurkar, said the self-driving wheelchair is a culmination of decades of work.

Along with Cyberworks, the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec played a role in developing the mapping technology for the chair.

Jonathan Kelly, an assistant professor for aerospace studies at U of T, said there are other self-driving wheelchairs currently being developed. What sets this one apart, he said, is that Cyberworks is using existing technology, which means the price will be kept low and it could be on the market in the next few years.

Jonathan Kelly, an assistant professor for aerospace studies at the University of Toronto, said the self-driving wheelchair technology will be cheaper than existing models. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

"A lot of things we work on are 20 years ahead, so it's exciting to think that something you worked on could actually be out there in the real world helping people in two or three years," said Kelly.

There are currently two prototypes in full operation at U of T. They both use visual sensors to navigate around, for example, laundry baskets, or a sleeping dog. Kelly also said they've made sure the chairs will notice glass doors, which can be a weak spot for the sensors.

Initially, the chair was being developed for severe upper-body impairments. Someone who can't use a joystick will often use a technology called a sip-and-puff switch — they blow or suck into a straw to send signals to the chair. However, Kelly said users complain the sip-and-puff can get tedious over time.

Kelly said that if the technology gets off the ground at the affordable price point they're hoping for, anyone in a wheelchair will be able to take advantage of the innovation.

Stewart Craig, 56, became a quadriplegic two years ago after falling down the stairs. He uses a joystick to maneuver his chair, but said at the beginning, when his hands were very weak, the self-driving option would have been useful.

Stewart Craig, 56, is a quadriplegic who uses a joystick to navigate his power wheelchair. (Stewart Craig/submitted)


"My hands do get tired, even now," said Craig.

He was initially hesitant about the idea of giving over control entirely to the technology. Craig said he's concerned about whether the sensors would see a red traffic light, or a pothole in the sidewalk.

"I'm old school, I like being in control of things," laughed Craig.

"Will it go over and toss me out? I worry about being thrown into traffic."

Ultimately, Craig said if the technology really is safe, he would enjoy the freedom of a hands-free ride.

The next step for the wheelchair, Kelly said, after making sure the technology is solid and safe, is to get feedback from users. Cyberworks will then seek approval from Health Canada and put it on the market.

As for Li, she is still deciding where she'll apply for her Master's degree. And, she said, she may set her sights on studying in Canada.