Wheelchair design is essentially a chair supported between two large drive wheels with one or more casters and has changed little since the first U.S. patent awarded in 1869. Globally, the World Health Organization reports that approximately 65 million people need a wheelchair. The 2010 U.S. Census indicated that there were 3.6 million wheelchair users over the age of 15 in the U.S. Limitations exist to current manual wheelchair design. Notably, daily manual chair propulsion contributes to long-term overuse injuries to shoulders and wrists, and because the hands are occupied with propulsion, access to life experiences such as holding a loved one’s hand on a walk are compromised. Other life experiences remain largely inaccessible as well, such as easily and safely navigating a variety of outdoor terrains without risk of falling (gravel, rocks, grass, sand, snow) and accessing tight spaces such as restroom stalls and airplane aisles. Powered wheelchairs address some of these limitations; however, they are heavy and large, which also limit use in tight spaces and require ramp/lift-equipped vehicles for transport. Most wheelchair users with sufficient upper limb functionality will not use powered wheelchairs due to their substantial weight, runtime limitations, larger size, and greater cost. A disruptive approach for achieving the rolling mobility of people with lower-limb disability is needed. This project envisions breaking the mold of the traditional wheelchair through exploration of a safe, compact, adaptive ball-based robot (ballbot), where the rider sits on a sleek modular robot that is driven by a single large ball. Robot movement and speed are managed hands-free by gently leaning the torso in the desired direction. The use of a single spherical wheel (a ball) allows for unique movement in any direction, or "omnidirectional” movement. Due to the sleek design of the ballbot architecture, the robot’s footprint will be approximately the size of a seated person and the height of a chair. User-centered design and user experience principles will be observed throughout prototype development by incorporating input from focus groups to allow for iterative adjustments. This embodiment creates an ideal ubiquitous collaborative human-robot relationship that seamlessly integrates this co-robot into the user's everyday life. This project will also provide educational opportunities to bring design thinking, focused specifically on design for disability, to university courses and high school engineering summer camps. A dedicated Disability Design Maker-Lab will be created within the U.S. Paralympic Training Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to provide these students, and those across the campus, with an immersive and empathic exposure to real-world application and individuals with physical disability.

MiaPURE is a Modular, Interactive and Adaptive collaborative robot that will provide a Personalized Unique Rolling Experience for each user. MiaPURE explores a common omnidirectional ballbot platform with multiple human-robot interfaces for modular and adaptive design configurations and input control. The primary goal is to improve upon hardware and control of self-balancing ball-based robots to allow for a safe, compact, and intuitive mobility device for people with lower-limb disability. This riding ballbot will feature omnidirectional, hands-free movement and ability to adapt to users of different sizes and trunk functional ability in a variety of environments. A secondary goal is to exploit modularity to envision easy conversion into a companion robot capable of supporting substantial top-heavy payloads (including up to the weight of an adult human). Both design configurations utilize a common ballbot drivetrain, which will be a sharable testbed allowing others to explore ballbot research questions. Customizable and scalable design needs will be explored to accommodate different users in complex environments. Two input control modes propelling either device configuration will be developed: (1) direct physical interaction (leaning of the torso while riding or pushing/pulling the companion ballbot), and (2) remote commands using an input device (e.g., joystick, gesture control). Advanced driving assistance such as obstacle avoidance and semi-autonomous navigation between predefined indoor locations will also be investigated. Specifically, this project will construct a third-generation prototype. In the first aim, the project will examine issues related to human-robot interfaces to allow for intuitive and organic user interfaces. The second and third aim will address low-level and higher-level robotic control, respectively. The technological approaches explored in this project can be applicable to making a realizable family of ballbots to address a variety of use cases and stakeholders (consumers, healthcare, workforce, and/or defense).

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS)
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Ephraim Glinert
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
United States
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