Veterans Affairs

Mobility enhancement robotic wheelchair

Increases mobility and independence of wheelchair users in both urban and natural settings

Medical & Biotechnology

Scientists at the Department of Veterans Affairs have recently developed an electric wheelchair known as the MEBot that is capable of negotiating a wide variety of terrain including stairs, slopes, gravel, and sidehills. The patent-pending technology is available via license agreement to companies that would make, use, or sell it commercially.

The electric wheelchair is an essential mobility device for people who have limited or no upper or lower extremity movement such as those diagnosed with spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or muscular dystrophy. Many users use their electric wheelchairs indoors and outdoors when going to work, a doctor’s appointment, the grocery store, or a friend’s house. When electric-wheelchair users venture into the outdoor environment they may encounter unfamiliar conditions or obstacles, which may lead to them becoming stuck or tipping over. Such conditions may include uneven terrain, steep slopes, slippery surfaces, cross slopes, and architectural barriers such as curbs and steps.

The number of electric wheelchair users is expected to increase as a result of the aging population and injured military personnel, and with an estimated 330,000 current electric wheelchair users, the need to increase wheelchair safety is important. Common accidents are often caused by the loss of traction, being immobilized, or the loss of stability. Many electric wheelchair users have been injured by a tip or fall.

The MEBot is a ruggedized electric wheelchair that allows users to confidently negotiate obstacles safely. The MEBot is powered by air pneumatics and electricity. The base uses a six-wheel design, similar to other electric wheelchairs. However, the MEBot has a unique wheel-control system that allows each to be positioned independently by pneumatic actuators. The MEBot is also equipped with sensors and an onboard computer that allow the chair to autonomously detect and adapt to obstacles.

The MEBot can climb a curb or a single step without user guidance. Likewise, when the MEBot encounters a slippery surface that would leave other electric wheelchairs spinning, its sensors activate a program that inches along by stepping the smaller wheels forward. While overcoming these obstacles, the combination of sensors and pneumatic actuators maintains a stable, level seat.

The large drive wheels can also reposition themselves to simulate front-, mid-, or rear-wheel driving. The four smaller wheels are controlled with compressed air and move up and down freely and independently. For climbing curbs, the front wheels lift onto the curb, then the driving wheels lift themselves and forward onto the curb, which lifts the chair onto the curb. This is done automatically whenever MEBot senses a curb or step.

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