The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart) is making improvements to Singapore's first self-driving wheelchair after a pilot trial at Changi General Hospital (CGH) last September.

The autonomous vehicle is a collaborative project involving Smart, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The same team of ten researchers who worked on the device 18 months ago would be making the improvements. The team has mapped out routes in the hospital for the AV to run – and has found that the main sensor was not able to detect glass doors, during a 10-hour trial.

The inventive innovation utilises computer vision, robotics, machine learning and cloud computing technologies. The team is now considering if ultrasound sensors are required.

Wheelchair to save time and money for healthcare systems

Professor Daniela Rus, the principal investigator explained the need for such a wheelchair. She said nurses in hospitals spend 40% of their time looking for wheelchairs and carts for their patients.

"More time can be spent on patient care and less time on logistics," she said.

Manpower issues could also be addressed especially in countries with a less developed medical care system and nurse-to-citizen ratios of less than one in 1,000, such as Nepal and Bangladesh.

Countries with rapidly ageing populations such as Japan, Malaysia and Singapore could also benefit as this demographic places a significant burden on the healthcare system.

More work is needed for autonomous wheelchair roll-out

The electrical engineering and computer science professor said that the self-driving wheelchair will also be able eliminate the need for hospital patients to navigate through "complex networks of hospital hallways" and help move them after they have completed surgical procedures.

"When we visited several retirement communities, we realised that the quality of life is dependent on mobility," she said.

"We want to make it really easy for people to move around."

Therefore Smart collaborated with Changi General Hospital to provide them with a testing ground. However, there are no concrete plans for implementation yet.

"I see a technology that is ready," said Professor Rus. "But we need to see how humans want to interact with the vehicle, and then make adjustments." MIMS

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