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Autonomous Wheelchair Grows From Robotics Kit, Personal Inspiration

RoboChair X (on the right) has been succeeded by the much larger RoboChair XI.

February 15, 2018      

Pitsco Inc. makes the TETRIX MAX dual-control robotics set for robotics competitions and educational programs, but one engineer in Queensland, Australia, has used it to develop an autonomous wheelchair. Doug Livingstone had a very personal inspiration for RoboChair.

Livingstone’s wife, Kathy, was diagnosed in 2011 with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Motor Neuron Disease in Australia. Baseball player Lou Gherig and physicist Stephen Hawking are well-known people with the disease.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robotics kits for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education such as TETRIX MAX can also help with grass-roots research and development of assistive technologies.
  • The RoboChair autonomous wheelchair includes navigation and communications capabilities.
  • Inventor Doug Livingstone is on Version 11 of his proof of concept, which could help patients with ALS.
Doug Livingstone has honored the memory of his wife Kathy by working on an autonomous wheelchair.

Doug Livingstone and his wife Kathy at the Grand Canyon Skywalk before her diagnosis.

“Communication devices were too expensive and outside our budget,” said Doug Livingstone. “I started developing software to assist her to communicate.”

After Kathy died in 2012, Doug continued his work on a proof of concept (POC) for assistive technology. He initially focused on ways for ALS patients to interact with others, and he needed affordable but robust robotics components.

Building an autonomous wheelchair

Livingstone found Pitsco‘s kits and built 11 prototype wheelchairs, all named “RoboChair.” TETRIX MAX sells for $775.

He explained that the “MAX and PRIME kits are a perfect medium for building prototypes. I can see, in the years to come, using the kits to build prototype robotic limbs and exoskeletons.”

The latest version of RoboChair has autonomous navigation capabilities that can follow simple instructions. It also a movable seat for sitting, standing, and laying. The autonomous wheelchair is intended to be a platform for his communications technology.

“RoboChair is only one part of my overall POC project,” Livingston noted. “It, however, will be a key delivery platform for much of the functionality.”

Other parts of Livingston’s research have already influenced healthcare technology. Estimote Inc., which sells indoor positioning beacons, has expressed interest in his BodyPointer communications program.

The market for healthcare and assistive robotics will grow from more than $200 million in 2015 to about $950 million in 2024, predicts Global Market Insights Inc. The research firm predicts strong growth in the U.S., Japan, and Germany because of aging populations.

The RoboChair autonomous wheelchair uses Pitsco's parts.

The latest version of RoboChair is made of TETRIX PRIME parts and servos, with the exception of the base.

3D printing and the ‘bleeding edge’

“I have been playing recently with a new device I acquired — a Snapmaker,” Livingston said. “This unit is a 3D printer, laser etcher, and CNC engraver. I have a few bespoke parts in mind to make for RoboChair, such as hinges from the chair.”

Livingston observed that his autonomous wheelchair is just an example of what’s possible for inventors interested in helping others.

“Some of the work that I am doing in on the ‘bleeding edge’ as they say, in using the technologies outside the bounds of what they were designed for,” said Livingston. “However, the firms involved all reckon it is a great idea in what I am doing. The good thing is that I am influencing others to try things and look at technologies to assist people.”

“Maybe this will start others with a challenge to design their own and greater RoboChair,” he added. “The less-abled public will benefit from this.”

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