Smart Wheelchair Technology Among 2020’s Best Inventions

Smart Wheelchair Technology Among 2020’s Best Inventions

December 14, 2020

Contrary to popular belief, wheelchairs can be quite dangerous, resulting in collisions, tipping, and other accidents that pose a serious risk for users. In 2003 alone, the National Electronic Injust Surveillance System (NEISS) noted that over 10,000 wheelchair-related injuries were treated in the United States, and the majority of accidents were due to tips and falls. 

“In my 25 years as a clinician, I know of countless wheelchair accidents resulting in serious physical injuries and lofty medical bills,” said Becky Breaux, an occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist at CU Denver’s Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering (CIDE). “Up until this point, society has seen wheelchair safety as a ‘luxury,’ not a necessity.” 

Take Max, for example.

Max has cerebral palsy and has worked with Breaux and her team at CIDE for the past eight years with a singular goal: successfully using his power wheelchair in the home. Because understanding his chair as it relates to his surroundings is challenging for Max, he frequently runs into walls and isn’t able to sense when there may be a drop-off, such as a curb. This has resulted in a number of close calls for Max and many others in similar situations.

Max at the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering in early 2018.

“We tried everything,” said Breaux. “There was even a time a few years ago when we used a sensor on the wheelchair to try to alert Max when he was getting too close to a cabinet or other obstacle, but it was way too sensitive, loud, and awkward to use in public . . . we were at our wit’s end.” 

Max’s story is one of many Breaux has seen in her tenure as a clinician. That’s why Breaux and her team were elated to hear from LUCI, a company whose product seeks to increase the safety of wheelchairs through smart technology, including high-tech sensors and cloud computing abilitiesSeeking hands-on clinician advice, LUCI reached out to CIDE in June of 2019, wondering if there was potential for a partnership to be formed. This wouldn’t be just any kind of partnership either—LUCI needed a clinician’s perspective, but also direct clients to test the product. 

“At CIDE, our vision is to create a world where all persons with disabilities and, those aging into disability, are engaged in life at home, school, work and play, without barriers and without boundaries through appropriate technology solutions,” said Cathy Bodine, director of CIDE. “It made perfect sense to collaborate with LUCI.” 

Beginning that summer, the CIDE team examined LUCI’s state-of-the art sensor technologies and offered feedback to the designers. With extensive knowledge and experience working with individuals who use mobility equipment, the CIDE team offered a multitude of much-needed perspectives, helping LUCI tailor the product to its end users.  

By identifying clients, like Max, who were interested in trying LUCI’s sensor technologies, CIDE was able to directly test the product’s efficacy. LUCI, then, could make the necessary changes and improve the accessory, boosting rider safety, independence, and more equitable access to their environments. For example, after receiving feedback from Petra Conaway, clinician and physical therapist at CIDE, that there was interference in the footplate of the chair, the LUCI team added configuration settings to address the issue. They also improved the sensors that are mounted on the footrests to further reduce the potential for interference. 

LUCI is an accessory for power wheelchairs, designed to give riders a safer and more inclusive experience. It is an attachable hardware/software product—the first of its kind—which uses cloud and sensor-fusion technologies to provide security, stability, and connectivity for power wheelchairs.

A look into LUCI

  • Collision avoidance 
    • LUCI is designed to prevent wheelchair users from running into objects (walls, people, pets, furniture, etc.) as they navigate their daily lives. It does this by smoothly helping to navigate the chair in coordination with user steering inputs based on obstacle detection in the driver’s surroundings.
  • Drop-off and tip protection
    • It doesn’t take a large drop-off to tip a wheelchair (less than three inches in some cases). LUCI helps users avoid tipping by recognizing steps or unsafe drop-offs and smoothly helping the chair continue on a safer path. LUCI monitors the steepness of a ramp or the ground users are driving on and provides an audible alert if it becomes a tipping danger. In the event that a chair tips over, LUCI sounds an alarm and can be configured to quickly alert other individuals, such as a caregiver or loved one, of the exact location of the rider and the tipped chair.
  • Cloud-based communication and alerts
    • The MyLUCI portal allows users to view their data and share it with loved ones or clinicians if they choose to. LUCI can be set up to alert others of specific events, such as the user’s location if their battery gets dangerously low. MyLUCI portal is available as a mobile app for both iOS and Android™ phones, as well as for desktop with the Web Portal.
  • Alexa and Google Assistant Compatibility 
    • LUCI also works with Amazon Alexa and Hey Google so users can interact with MyLUCI using their voice.

Max now has the LUCI on his power wheelchair at home and, after months of practice, is a full-time user. With help from Breaux, Max is able to navigate his home without major collisions and can approach a curb without fear of dropping off. 

“Being able to directly influence a product that will substantially improve engagement in all aspects of life for persons with significant physical disabilities is deeply rewarding,” said Jim Sandstrum, MA, Professional Services Coordinator at CIDE. “Connecting with leading-edge innovations such as LUCI also allows our team to extend their expertise with inclusive technologies, improving our ability to effectively translate knowledge to industry.” 

LUCI was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s Top 100 Inventions of 2020. The company continues to work with CIDE for consulting and clinical support, improving health outcomes and independence of people using the technology. 

“When designing or developing a product intended for persons with disabilities, or older adults aging into disability, it is critical to incorporate subject matter experts—including clinicians, engineers and perhaps most importantly the population of individuals for whom you are developing,” said Bodine. “University partnerships such as the partnership between LUCI and CIDE can provide the expertise and access to potential users, improving the health and wellness of individuals across the globe.”