By Susana Madera
Quito, Apr 25 (EFE).- A group of university students in Ecuador are perfecting a wheelchair prototype that moves in different ways when a user thinks about specific colors, a project aimed at improving the quality of life of paraplegics and quadriplegics.
Designed over the course of a year at Quito’s University of the Americas (UDLA), this low-cost prototype uses a headband to gather neural impulses from a person’s brain and sends that data on to a controller (small computer) for processing.
“There’s a delay of exactly one second between receiving and sending the information,” 25-year-old Carlos Abad, part of the team at UDLA’s Telecommunications Engineering Department that developed this science-fiction-like prototype, told Efe.
What sets this device apart from other similar models developed in other countries is the “treatment and processing of the signals” used to move the wheelchair forward, backward, right or left depending on users’ thoughts about certain colors, Abad said.
The chair also shows the versatility of BCIs (brain-control interfaces) in generating new technologies when controlled by a microcontroller-based platform like Arduino.
Thanks to their access to a donated wheelchair and motors provided by UDLA, the students only needed to invest $200 in the controller and headband.
Each controller costs $20, but that price could drop to as little as $5 if that equipment is purchased in bulk, according to Abad, who said the retail price of an economical design – wheelchair included – may be as low as $500.
The automated system is designed with MPU-6050 (accelerometer), HCSR04 (ultrasonic) and HC-05 (Bluetooth) sensors and a TGAM (ThinkGear Asic Module-BCI) module.
This technology has been used in the past in video games and other projects and prototypes, but recently it is being implemented to provide “useful functionalities,” said Abad, who became involved in the project after a calf injury caused him to reflect on life in a wheelchair.
“The first thing that occurred to me was that I wouldn’t want to be a burden to anyone,” he said, noting that the goal of the project is to ensure the independence of people who suffer some form of disability.
READY IN A MONTH
Abad said that once the roughly $3,000 needed to develop the project is available it should only take a month to assemble a chair and equip it for use, adding that the most complicated phase of developing a stable algorithm has already been completed.
“We don’t intend to leave it in the project phase because we put a lot of effort into both knowledge and research. We want to (move forward), perhaps little by little, even if it’s with our own savings,” he said.
“It’s a project that can serve for a lot of things and for further experimentation. We’ll have to look at the possibility of investing in motors that are more powerful and consume less energy,” Carlos Carrion, a telecommunications engineering professor at UDLA, said.
He added that the headband and controller could be sold separately to those who want to adapt it to other wheelchairs.
The equipment weighs 50 kilos (110 pounds) in all, so experts also are looking at making the prototype lighter through the use of other materials.
Training also is required to enable the user to concentrate on the right color in the algorithm to achieve the desired wheelchair movement.
“With a little more algorithmic development, we may be able to see these things from science fiction in the future, where everything can be thought-controlled,” Carrion said. EFE