Stair climbing wheelchair takes winning position

| Information and Communication Technology

A self-aligning wheelchair for negotiating stairs has won the Global Student Design Showcase from National Instruments.

Chosen from the three finalists picked for National Instruments’ top academic award at the company’s annual NI Week event in Austin, USA, the Scalevo stair climbing wheelchair impressed the judging panel with the speed with which it was developed, its degree of readiness for commercial exploitation and the impact it can have on society.

Collaborative design

The team behind the stair-climbing wheelchair is comprised of 7 mechanical engineering students and 1 electrical engineering student from the autonomous systems lab of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and 2 industrial design students from the Zurich University of Arts (ZHdK).

The mix of skills offered by such a diverse team is one of the factors which led to the success of the design, which incorporated advanced mechatronics with high levels of industrial design to ensure usability for users with limited physical ability.

The Scalevo stair climbing wheelchair in actionWheels and tracks

The basic platform for the wheelchair is similar to a Segway with two large driven wheels providing stability and manoeuvrability on flat surfaces as well as sufficient motive power and braking force on inclined stairs.

The wheelchair negotiates stairs using an extensible mechanism that uses a rubber toothed track to provide grip. The position and angle of the track is controlled using the National Instruments myRIO controller programmed with LabVIEW. At each end of the stairway, auxiliary wheels are extended to provide stability while the track is retracted before the wheelchair can be used in one of its four operational modes of Agile, Stable, Safe or Everyday Use.

According to project participant, Dario Mariani of ETH Zurich, the Scalevo project provides additional mobility to wheelchair users with complete or partial autonomous control.  At the NI Week event, Dario told us, “Sensors on the wheelchair detect the presence of steps, their pitch, depth and inclination and automatically extend the tracked guide to maintain the chair in an upright position while the steps are negotiated”.

Asked if the occupant feels comfortable and in control during such manoeuvres, Dario continued, “Slippage or excessive tilt is detected and the device fails safe by locking all drives and rotating components to maintain a stable position. Of course, there is a short period of becoming accustomed to the wheelchair, but the user very soon feels completely confident”.

ETZ Zurich students at the NI Week award ceremonyAcademic investment

The awards for academic achievements form part of NI’s policy of engagement with academic institutions and the student population to promote the engineering profession and train the engineers and technologists of the future.

At this year’s awards, all three finalists attended NI week with their innovative projects which also included:

The MedSIM haptic simulator for medical training.

This is a needle insertion simulator which replicates the forces and the feedback received when inserting a needle into a patient. A dataset of needle insertion forces relevant to tissue types and depth of insertion were fed into a National Instruments MyRIO controller which uses a program created in Labview to provide the simulation profile. The entry was submitted by students from the University of Leeds.

Auto-balancing bicycle

Submitted by the Tsinghua University, the auto-balancing bicycle is based on a hybrid powered bicycle fitted with a CompactRIO controller, LiDAR and laser sensing devices and a Gyroscope to create what is arguably the first and only autonomous driverless bike. The project participants wanted to extend the scope of vehicle autonomy to bicycles and show that the complex distribution of forces and reactions in a two-wheeled vehicle could be controlled autonomously.

Jonathan Newell
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