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MIT wheelchair steers clear with Wi-Fi

Wheelchair with memory can self-navigate to any preset location. But instead of relying on a satellite signal like GPS, it uses Wi-Fi and can work indoors.

This may be the best thing since the invention of the electric wheelchair.

A group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has invented a wheelchair with all the self-navigating abilities of a GPS device.

Nicholas Roy (left) and Seth Teller demonstrate the navigating wheelchair. Patrick Gillooly/MIT

Only instead of being inhibited by the need for a satellite signal like a GPS device, MIT said Friday, the location-aware wheelchair uses Wi-Fi and can work indoors.

Just like with a GPS navigator, the wheelchair has programmed favorites. Better yet, it works by voice recognition so you don't have to type in a request.

All you have to say is "to the boardroom" or "to the kitchen," and the wheelchair will self-navigate from wherever you are to wherever you want to go. It works via a network of Wi-Fi nodes that must be present in the building it navigates. But the chair does not require a detailed, computer-generated map of the entire building upfront. It can learn which places are important and where they are located by being taken on an initial "tour."

The wheelchairs are already being tested in the real world. About 100 people and their caregivers at the Boston Home in Dorchester, Mass., a facility for those with multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases, are trying out the system.

The autonomous wheelchair is the collaboration of Nicholas Roy, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT; Seth Teller, professor of computer science and electrical engineering and head of the Robotics, Vision, and Sensor Networks group at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; and Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT's AgeLab. The project has been funded by Microsoft and Nokia.

In addition to creating the wheelchair, the group is also working on other location-aware objects such as cell phones and forklifts.