December 9, 2021

Wheelchairs get the Tesla treatment with self-driving technology

Motorized wheelchairs promise greater freedom for people with mobility challenges, and now, with technologies inspired...

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.

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