The School of Engineering and Digital Arts have developed a new wheelchair design, aimed at giving wheelchair users greater independence than ever before. InQuire member and wheelchair user, Liam Megran, tried it out.

How difficult is life really from a wheelchair user’s perspective?

It is a question that is commonly asked by more able-bodied members of the public, yet when challenged, it is always a question of how these difficulties and obstacles can be overcome. In this day and age, technology is progressing at an exponential rate, among these technologies we have powered wheelchairs that in turn provide a new level of independence for people with specific mobility needs. But how can we push the boundaries of wheelchair technologies further to bring new levels of independence to these people’s lives? The answer is quite simple, automated obstacle avoidance and teleoperation.

To put this technology into context, it allows for remote operation of a power wheelchair using a smartphone, as well as special sensors to avoid obstacles while operating the wheelchair. The team within the School of Engineering and Digital Arts here at the University of Kent have developed this technology with the simple aim of allowing wheelchair users access to this new level of independence. The research project, led by Dr Kostas Sirlantzis has so far proved very successful, with two power wheelchairs currently equipped with this technology being fully functional. The goal is to show people that this technology can be developed and can be successful at a production level, providing the next step for wheelchair users in terms of independence.

Being a wheelchair user myself, sometimes I encounter certain difficulties or obstacles while using my power wheelchair, which is why I feel that this technology is an advancement in progressing the independence level of wheelchair users. I was recently contacted by Dr Kostas regarding this research project, asking for my opinion and insight on it. I mentioned to Dr Kostas that this project is a big step that I support, along with the technology that has been manufactured. Upon having this discussion, I was then contacted by Dr Kostas asking if I would be happy to trial this wheelchair technology, an offer which I accepted.

When I met with members of the engineering team to prepare for the wheelchair trial, they first ran through the objectives of it. They setup a makeshift route that would represent a corridor in which the wheelchairs would be guided. A local news reporter was present to gain footage of the wheelchair technology in action and to have an interview with me regarding what I thought of the technology. When I first started to control the wheelchair with a smartphone for the first time I was simply taken back in amazement, it was just like controlling the joystick of my own power wheelchair, but much easier.

Gradually I got more and more used to controlling the wheelchair with a smartphone, and I must say it is a technology that must be developed up to production level, as it will make lives so much more independent for wheelchair users. Not only users who can operate the wheelchair, but users who do not have the mobility level to operate the wheelchairs themselves and require another person or carer to operate it for them. I then moved on to the wheelchair with the sensor technology, and I must say it was very accurate at knowing when a wall or obstacle was near, steering the wheelchair clear to avoid it, or stopping the wheelchair to prevent a collision.

When having the interview with the news reporter I simply stated in my own words that this technology is amazing, that people should be made well aware that this technology can be developed for wheelchairs, and that it has functionality and capability to improve the independence level of wheelchair user’s lives. To sum up this technology I would say that it is very worthwhile and that it needs to be developed at a production level as it will be so beneficial, not only to wheelchairs but the people that have to use them during their day-to-day lives. If this can provide the answer to the question above, then this technology can certainly bring change and make lives easier and more independent for people with specific mobility issues that rely on the use of a wheelchair.