Technical Assistance

Under the guidance of Oregon State robotics professor Bill Smart, Arvey and his fellow students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the University Honors College work to empower people with disabilities. Their idea: Equip an electric wheelchair with an operating system that can respond to verbal commands or eye blinks.


October 10, 2014

Ben Arvey, left, navigates a wheelchair with eye blinks while project leader Ben Narin points out controls. (Photo: Hannah O'Leary)
Ben Arvey, left, navigates a wheelchair with eye blinks while project leader Ben Narin points out controls. (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)

Last summer, Ben Arvey took an electric wheelchair for a test drive. He blinked his eyes, and as the Google Glass on his head relayed those small movements through the Internet, the chair moved forward. With no assistance from Arvey, it swerved to avoid a table and then straightened out as though traveling down a hallway. For good measure, since he was in a robotics lab, he passed Harris, the lab’s human-sized personal robot, and gave it a high-five.

Under the guidance of Oregon State robotics professor Bill Smart, Arvey and his fellow students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the University Honors College work to empower people with disabilities. Their idea: Equip an electric wheelchair with an operating system that can respond to verbal commands or eye blinks.

“Robotics has practical benefits for people,” says Ben Narin, project leader and a senior in EECS. “We want to make someone’s life better.”

Such a chair could be particularly useful for people with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) who gradually lose control of their muscles. As their arms and legs become disabled, a smart wheelchair could enable them to go from room to room or even outside to feel the wind and sun on their face.

To facilitate the project, the ALS Association of Oregon provided Smart’s lab with a Permobile power rehabilitation chair. It tilts and uses leg extensions to reduce the patient’s risk of developing sores.

Team Gleason, an ALS initiative started by former New Orleans Saints football player Steve Gleason, has also expressed interest in this innovation.

“We want to make it so the wheelchair will autonomously navigate,” says team member Jasper LaFortune. “You just tell it where you want to go, and it will take you there.”

Toward that end, Cameron Bowie is developing software to create floor maps of homes that can help guide a wheelchair in a manner similar to the GPS in our cars. LaFortune is working on software to enable robots to mimic the way a person might navigate from room to room — such as down the right side of a hallway. And Arvey is assisting programmers who use the Robot Operating System — or ROS — a popular open source program, which is hosted at Oregon State’s Open Source Lab.

Shared Autonomy

The students’ goal isn’t to create a device that does everything for you, adds robotics graduate student William Curran. “As a roboticist, the end goal is to press the ‘go’ button, and the robot does everything for you, like a maid, and then leaves. There‘s no human intervention. That’s the gold standard.

“However, for people with disabilities or who don’t want everything done for them, they want some of their independence. So rather than have the robot do the dishes for them, the robot could wash the dishes and then hand them off to someone else. We call it ‘shared autonomy.’ You’re not controlling the robot, but it’s not completely autonomous. It gets to the whole point of personal robotics. Our research is about robots interacting with people.”

In contrast to systems designed from the ground up, the OSU control module can be mounted on an off-the-shelf wheelchair. This approach would enable people to adapt the technology to their individual needs.

Although Ben Narin is leading the wheelchair team, this isn’t his first foray into robotics. As a student at South Eugene High School, he joined the FIRST robotics team and spent evenings and weekends assembling, programming and testing 120-lb. machines operated by remote control. When he came to OSU, he worked on OSU’s Mars Rover team, which placed fourth that year in international competition in Utah.

While he learned a lot, the rover didn’t fulfill his desire to make peoples’ lives better. “I wanted to benefit people more than be on a team of students building robots,” he says. “I wanted to be part of something practical.”

His chance came when a human-sized robot called a PR2 (renamed Harris by the students) arrived in Smart’s lab. The professor brought Narin onboard to help unpack the robot and get it running. The next thing he knew, he was working with two graduate students in the OSU robotics program — Curran and Matt Rueben — on the wheelchair project. Narin specialized in the electrical system and the software that controls how the wheelchair responds to commands.

This fall, Narin and his team plan to test their system on chairs used by ALS patients in Massachusetts and California.

Meet the Undergrads

These students in Bill Smart’s lab are in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Benjamin Narin, Eugene
Goal: An autonomous wheelchair to increase the standard of living for individuals with extreme disabilities.

Cameron Bowie, Clackamas
Goal: Software to create floor maps that can help guide a wheelchair in a manner similar to the GPS in our cars.

Jasper LaFortune, Moscow, Idaho
Goal: Program to enable robots to mimic the way a person might navigate from room to room — such as down the right side of a hallway.

Benjamin Arvey, Corvallis
Goal: Assistance for programmers who use the Robot Operating System — or ROS — which is hosted at Oregon State’s Open Source Lab.

Duy Nguyen, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Goal: A method for protecting a robot owner’s privacy.

National Attention
Arvey, Curran and Thomas Thornton, an OSU summer research student and an undergraduate at Colby College, were selected from more than 200 applicants to give a presentation to ROSCon, the national Robot Developers’ Conference, last September in Chicago.

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