Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New wheelchair prototype may add to independence of users

From The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Whether driving to and from his real estate office, his grandson's baseball game, the mall - Tom Palermo (pictured) always needed someone to help with his wheelchair.

A proud Vietnam vet who suffers from multiple sclerosis, he just hated having to rely on others.

No longer. These days, the wheelchair takes care of itself.

Palermo simply hoists himself into the driver's seat of his shiny black SUV, pushes a few buttons, and presto! The wheelchair rolls by itself to the back of the car, where it is picked up by a motorized lift and locked into place inside the vehicle - a process aided by sophisticated robotics and a seeing-eye laser.

"It really gave me back my life," says Palermo, 60, of Somers Point, N.J.

The system, made by a Philadelphia start-up company called Freedom Sciences, is one of just a handful of entries into the fledgling field of consumer robotics. Devices that use lasers to "see" have been in use for years in fixed indoor industrial settings, such as machines that shut off if someone's hand penetrates a safety "curtain" of laser beams. But their use by regular people in varying conditions - rain, snow, darkness - represents a new frontier.

Similar technology was used in Little Ben, a driverless robot car developed at the University of Pennsylvania. Engineers from Lehigh University contributed to that project, and they helped develop the Freedom Sciences wheelchair system as well.

The long-term goal, says John Spletzer, a Lehigh associate professor of computer science and engineering:

A wheelchair that will navigate itself not just to the back of your car, but also on a crowded city sidewalk.

Most wheelchair-bound drivers use conversion vans, in which the regular driver's seat is cut out and the wheelchair installed in its place, behind the steering wheel. These conversions require heavy-duty, permanent alterations to the van's chassis, and there is a limited choice of vehicles that can accommodate such surgery.

For some drivers, another option is to stow the wheelchair in the back of the car and sit in a modified version of the regular driver's seat. But typically, such drivers need help stashing the wheelchair, as Palermo did.

Tom Panzarella Sr. figured there had to be a better way. He is chief executive officer of Cook Technologies, a Green Lane, Montgomery County, company that has made power scooters for the disabled, as well as electric lifts to hoist them into the back of a car.

In 2004, while attending a national conference of what is called the "mobility industry," Panzarella envisioned a wheelchair that could somehow drive itself to and from the back of the car. Like many a brainstormer before him, he sketched out the rough concept on a paper napkin.

To make the idea a reality, he turned to his son, Tom Jr., a software engineer for a company that managed health-care data. The younger Panzarella consulted with robotics experts at Lehigh and also at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.

At first he kept his day job and worked on the wheelchair project at night.

"It was payback time, in my mind," his father jokes, referring to the money he'd spent on Tom Jr.'s tuition at Villanova University.

"This to me was just 'Hey, I'm helping out Dad, he has a vision,' " Tom Jr. says.

A rough prototype was ready by the following year, and it worked so well that the Panzarellas formed a separate company: Freedom Sciences. A finished product came on the market in 2008.

A big part of how the wheelchair gets itself inside the car is an infrared laser, which is mounted on a motorized lift in the back of the vehicle. The laser "sees" the wheelchair much like a submarine uses sonar, though it relies on infrared light instead of sound waves.

The system's software measures how long it takes for the laser beam to bounce off the wheelchair and return to the car - enabling a split-second calculation of where it is.

The chair is fitted with two cylinders wrapped in marine-grade reflective tape, so the laser system has no trouble picking it out, even in the rain, at night, or in the presence of another car's headlights, Tom Panzarella Jr. says.

Palermo recently demonstrated his system in the parking lot where he works, at Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors in Ocean City, N.J.

First, he drove his wheelchair up alongside his GMC Yukon and started the vehicle by remote control. Then he opened the car and grabbed an orange control box that was stored in the pocket of the driver-side door.

He pushed one button to open the rear hatch, and pushed other buttons to manipulate the driver's seat. It is the original seat from his car, but has been fitted with three motors so it can be lowered to his level.

Palermo used his arms to ease himself from the wheelchair to the driver's seat. (Some degree of arm function is necessary to use the system. Multiple sclerosis has affected Palermo's, but the condition seems to have stabilized.)

Then he used a remote-control joystick to drive the empty wheelchair toward the rear of the car, where the laser was installed. Once the chair had rolled to where the laser could "see" it, its navigation was taken over by electronics mounted inside the car.

The chair glided smoothly onto the waiting lift, which then raised it up into the car. Palermo, meanwhile, had electrically raised his seat into place behind the steering wheel.

He is thrilled, and doesn't mind the gawking from passersby.

"I stop traffic at the mall," Palermo says. Once, he recalled, a boy saw him and shouted to his friends:

"You gotta come see this guy. He's got a Transformer car!"

Tom Jr. left his old job to serve as the chief technology officer for Freedom Sciences. Tom Sr. became the chief executive officer, while keeping his job at Cook Technologies.

Freedom Sciences' headquarters is in the Navy Yard, in one of the red-brick buildings that used to serve as officer quarters. The company employs close to two dozen people.

It customizes several brands of wheelchairs so they can make the solo voyage from driver's seat to the back of the car. It also makes the motorized system to lower the driver's seat to ground level, so the driver can transfer to and from the wheelchair. Finally, it makes the electric lift that raises the wheelchair into the back of the car.

Customers can purchase any of the three products depending on level of disability. The full system costs $22,000 to $28,000, depending on the kind of car. For vets, funding is available from the Department of Veterans Affairs; others may find help from state vocational rehabilitation offices or disability insurance.

One customer, Phil Barrett, liked being able to get the Freedom Sciences system installed in the car he already owned, a Chevrolet Tahoe, rather than settling for a conversion van. Disabled people should have the same choices as anyone else, says Barrett, who lives in a Sacramento, Calif., suburb.

What's more, the Freedom Sciences system is more flexible, says Doug Curtis, national sales manager for MobilityWorks, a dealer that sells it. If a customer wants to sell his car, the laser-guided wheelchair system can simply be transferred to another vehicle.

Freedom Sciences has sold thousands of lifts, close to 1,000 motorized driver's seats, and two dozen of the laser-guided wheelchairs, its newest product. The company posted sales of $5.4 million last year. Lehigh receives a 1 percent royalty on each sale of the laser-guided systems.

Future models will have the laser installed on the chair itself, so it will "see" the car instead of the other way around.

The next step is to customize wheelchairs to work in other environments, such as a hospital. The goal is to program a chair to ferry a patient to and from, say, a rehab session.

An outdoor model that could operate on sidewalks is further away, though Spletzer, the Lehigh engineer, is already at work on it, funded by a five-year $480,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

For now, the current model has made all the difference for Palermo. He can come into the real estate office at 8:30 a.m., when no one else is there. He can stay until 7 p.m., without worrying if someone will be around to help.

All the help he needs is already at his fingertips.