25 October 2011

New partnership with charity to help develop robotic wheelchair

Researcher working on RoboChair

A project to design a high performance low-cost robotic wheelchair at the University of Essex has received a £10,000 boost from the Colchester Catalyst Charity.

The concept of a highly versatile ‘RoboChair’ has been developed by the University’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering (CSEE), led by Professor Huosheng Hu and his Robotics Research Group.

Professor Hu and his team are recognised internationally for their work in this field, and their previous research projects on the control of robotic wheelchairs have been financed by the Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Science.

Professor Hu is now directing the efforts to overcome the difficulties people with severe physical disabilities face when trying to use standard ‘joystick’ operated wheelchairs. The work will investigate how to control wheelchairs using brain waves, facial gestures, speech, small body movements or a combination of all these techniques.

The project could transform the lives of people with severe mobility problems and the funding from the Colchester Catalyst Charity will support an initial ‘user preference study’ to help make sure the designs meet the requirements of users as effectively as possible.

The University will be working in partnership with the Colchester Catalyst Charity to identify user groups in the local area who can contribute to the study.

The user preference study is an important stepping stone towards developing a commercially viable robotic wheelchair which can eventually be manufactured.

Following the study the University hopes to continue working with the Colchester Catalyst Charity to seek further partners, including manufacturers, to take development of the RoboChair forward to production.

The RoboChair concept could also provide relatively low cost improvements for existing electric wheelchair users, as the robotic control panel and other equipment being developed by the Essex team could also be adapted to fit existing wheelchair models.

Professor David Crawford, the University’s Deputy Director of Enterprise, said: "We are pleased that our partnership with the Colchester Catalyst Charity will allow local people to work with us to trial and influence the development of an adaptable robotic wheelchair which could transform lives.”

A spokesman for the Colchester Catalyst Charity said: "The Colchester Catalyst Charity is constantly looking out for original and innovative projects that can help make life easier for people with health problems in Colchester. The RoboChair project excited us because there's nothing else like it in the area, and it could make a difference to the lives of people around the world. It truly is a world-class project and demonstrates how much talent there is in Colchester when it comes to developing technology for the health industry.

"We decided to grant £10,000 to help this project progress to the next stage of development. We are in touch with a large number of disabled users who would benefit from this kind of technology. So, as well as providing some funding – not all as we expect more funding to come from other sources – we will provide the University of Essex with access to disabled people to identify how this chair could change their lives. These users will help to shape how the chair will work eventually.

"The Colchester Catalyst Charity aims to kick-start projects and get them off the ground. We are very very keen on encouraging match-funding, so we would be delighted if other organisations also step forward and support the University as it develops this project."

Ends

For more information please contact the Communications Office on 01206 874377 or e-mail: comms@essex.ac.uk

Video and photographs of the RoboChair are available on request.

For more information about the Colchester Catalyst Charity visit its website at: www.colchestercatalyst.co.uk

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