In 2002, Joelle Pineau was contributing to a multi-university project called Nursebot, which built mobile robotic personal aides for people living in nursing homes. Nursebot got Pineau thinking about the countless ways human-robot interaction could improve the lives of people with limitations — such as decreased mobility. Five years ago, the McGill associate professor of computer science (and co-director of the Reasoning and Learning Lab) began collaborating with professor Paul Cohen’s team at École Polytechnique de Montréal. Pineau’s specialty is coding algorithms, while the Polytechnique crew are focused on engineering challenges. Their new “smart wheelchair” senses obstacles and can use programmed maps to self-navigate specific terrains. Now in the prototype stage, their smart wheelchair would not only benefit current users of motorized wheelchairs; because of the smart wheelchair’s capability to be programmed, and to understand spoken commands, it could also open up previously off-limits mobility options for many people who lack the cognitive abilities to operate conventional motorized wheelchairs. Beginning this fall, the researchers will begin a pilot project at Place Alexis-Nihon in downtown Montreal. The field project will investigate how well the smart chair can autonomously navigate the shopping centre’s busy hallways, and respond to the needs and interests of its occupant. (These field tests are just part of a much larger project that is using the mall as a “Rehabilitation Living Lab” to explore issues of social inclusion and participation for people with physical disabilities. The Living Lab is an initiative of the multi-university Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation of Greater Montreal, codirected by McGill associate professor Eva Kehayia.) “What makes our study different from other smart wheelchairs,” says Pineau, “is that it’s the only one that has undergone a clinically relevant test. We have used the Wheelchair Skill Test, which was developed by researchers at Dalhousie University, to quantify people’s performance with the wheelchair under different circumstances. It’s this close tie with people in clinical practice which has helped get this project so far in only four years.”
This research is funded by an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grant in conjunction with Sunrise Medical, a manufacturer of products for home care and extended care. The “Rehabilitation Living Lab” project at Alexis-Nihon is funded by the Fonds de la recherche en santé’s Projects for Innovative Strategic Development program, in partnership with Homburg Invest Inc.