New ‘Hands-Free’ Wheelchair Technology Revolutionizes User Mobility

March 31, 2023

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a robotic wheelchair called PURE (personalized unique rolling experience) that allows people with physical disabilities to move around without the need for manual pushing.  

Adam Bleakney holding hands with his wife and holding a cup using the PURE hands-free wheelchair

The researchers believe the ballbot wheelchair may be the future of mobility assistance. They have created a “Star Wars”-inspired robotic wheelchair that uses a single, rolling ball to provide a handsfree, intuitive, and flexible device for users. The device was conceptualized in a sketch on a napkin by Adam Bleakney, a graduate-turned-researcher after he thought about how the robotic character, BB8 from the “Star Wars” movies of the mid 2000’s could be adapted for his wheelchair. Bleakney sustained a spinal cord injury in 1996 leaving him with paraplegia.

The prototype university engineers later designed, is operated by leaning in the desired direction and rolls on a ball instead of traditional wheels – making it easier to maneuver in tight spaces. The specialized chair, which is still in development, automatically transitions between three driving behaviors: steer, spin and slide. With a weight of around 132 pounds, it measures only as wide as the user’s hips and stands at the height of a standard table chair. 

The project received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2020, and a working prototype with a pending patent was produced after two years. 

The university team aims to improve the wheelchair further, developing an advanced driver assistance program with a  machine-learning vision system that will help with path-keeping, collision avoidance, and automatic stops.

For more on the future of these dynamic wheelchairs, visit the University of Illinois Health Care Engineering Systems Center

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