UBC student from India designing smart wheelchair that can park itself (w/video)

Published: August 2, 2014


Karthik Paga, a mechanical engineering student from Vellore Institute of Technology in India, got the opportunity to work with UBC associate professor Ian Mitchell on the smart wheelchair project thanks to the Mitacs Globalink internship program.

An Indian student interning at the University of British Columbia is designing a smart wheelchair that can back into a seating spot at the click of a button, just like self-parking cars.

This design will enable seniors with cognitive disabilities to use motorized wheelchairs to back up into a spot without bumping into obstacles.

Karthik Paga, a mechanical engineering student from Vellore Institute of Technology in India, got the opportunity to work with UBC associate professor Ian Mitchell on the smart wheelchair project thanks to the Mitacs Globalink internship program.

The smart wheelchair project, which has been going on a for a few years now, involved studying the needs of older adults in long-term care facilities.

The researchers wanted to understand what were the tasks users needed help with and which functions of the wheelchair should be automated, said Mitchell.

The study identified tasks, which most people in the trial needed help with, such as getting into an elevator, docking at a table, driving through a hallway and driving through a crowd.

Backing into a seating spot was one such task that Mitchell has assigned to Paga, which he thinks can be dealt with over the four-month internship.

Paga is trying to understand how obstacles behind the wheelchair are perceived by the attached sensors to make the chair move away from those obstacles and back-in automatically. “You just need to press a button and the sensors come alive, figures out the best path and takes that path. This task will be free from user intervention.”

Paga is also analyzing data collected during the ‘Wizard of Oz’ trials conducted by other researchers as part of the whole smart wheelchair project. The trials involved seniors at long-term care facilities with cognitive disabilities using remote-controlled wheelchairs. All types of sensors and cameras to detect and record motion and map obstacles in its field were attached to the wheelchair for the trials.

Paga is also aligning some of this data for his own robust and low cost mechanism to automate the ‘back and park’ task.

Mitchell is very happy with the progress Paga is making and the opportunity provided by Mitacs Globalink to work with international students during such internships. “It gives me a chance to work with an international student on a short term project and see if he would be appropriate for graduate school. And he is able to come and see what working in a North American laboratory is like,” said Mitchell.

Paga applied for the internship because it involved studying Kinect sensors. After coming to UBC, he has also learned a completely new operating system called ROS (Robotics Operating System). “This is an amazing opportunity for me. All this equipment here is what I’ve looked forward to work with, hands on,” he said.

Paga’s motivation also meets the aim of the internship program. According to Rob Annan, Interim CEO and Scientific Director of Mitacs the aim is to recruit international students, give them exposure to the work environment here and “raise the profile of Canadian universities abroad.”

Paga also found it amazing the way researchers collaborated on projects and the patience with which they responded to his queries. He wants to continue research on other aspects of automating the wheelchair when he goes back after the internship if possible, and hopes to return to Canada for graduate studies in robotics.

Asked if he got a cultural shock after coming to Vancouver, Paga only smiled. “I think Canada is a very friendly place, I’ve experienced that firsthand,” he said.


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