Motorized wheelchairs promise greater freedom for people with mobility challenges, and now, with technologies inspired by nascent self-driving cars, they’re getting smarter — and safer.
Why it matters: A specialized wheelchair can cost as much as a Tesla but has none of its modern technology, putting vulnerable users at risk for collisions and other accidents, like tipping over a curb.
What’s happening: A startup formed by two brothers with a personal motivation developed LUCI, a software and hardware platform that introduces smart technology for power wheelchair users.
- The “smart frame” kit includes multiple sensors — cameras, radar and ultrasonic — along with an ARM processor that acts as the chair’s “brain.”
- LUCI can detect pets or a crawling baby, for instance, and automatically stop the chair. It can also stop for uneven pavement or dangerous drop-offs.
- With built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, users can link their chair to an at-home assistant like Alexa, and also communicate with caregivers.
- “We’re turning the wheelchair into the edge device, or command module, for these folks,” said Jered Dean, LUCI co-founder and chief technology officer.
The backstory: Jered and his brother Barry Dean set out to help Barry’s 19-year-old daughter, Katherine, who was born with cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair her entire life.
- Their hack of Katherine’s chair led to a realization that there is no commercially available smart tech for custom wheelchairs.
- They figured they could adapt off-the-shelf technology from robotics companies or self-driving cars but found it didn’t translate well to wheelchairs.
- “There are no maps or street signs [as for cars] or geotags [as for robots] in a warehouse,” Jered told me. “Everywhere you go in a week, that’s where a wheelchair has to go and it has to work.”
- The pair ended up inventing their own radar and ultrasonic sensors, applying for 19 patents, 10 of which have already been issued.
The bottom line: A motorized wheelchair can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $90,000. For an additional $8,445, LUCI makes it smarter.