Dr. Brenna Argall-Led Project


NSF Awards $5 Million to Dr. Brenna Argall-Led Project to Develop Power Wheelchair with Driver-Assist Technology


The National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator program recently announced a $5 million award to Project Drive, a multidisciplinary partnership that aims to bring the first active driving assistance system for power wheelchairs to the consumer market. The principal investigator of the NSF-funded project is Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s Brenna Argall, PhD, research scientist and director, Assistive and Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory (argallab).

Driver-assist technologies in modern automobiles, including emergency braking and lane assistance, incorporate robotics autonomy to transform traditionally human-operated machines into shared-control systems. Through the integration of sensors and practical machine intelligence, robotics autonomy could also enable life-changing independent mobility for millions of people with severe motor impairments for whom current, commercially available power wheelchairs can be overly burdensome or entirely inaccessible.

“We're aiming to address barriers to independent wheelchair mobility,” said Dr. Argall. 

The wheelchair intelligence thrust will integrate two active driver assistance paradigms — called REACT and ROUTE — built by the argallab team and enabled by technology from LUCI Mobility. LUCI is an advanced wheelchair technology company that pioneered the first commercially available, sensor-based wheelchair driver assistance system.

The REACT active corrective assistance system adjusts the user’s command to avoid collisions and drop-offs. Project Drive aims to roll out the REACT active assistance add-on to LUCI beta-testers by the end of 2024 and to all LUCI users as an opt-in feature by the end of 2025.

“This technology that started in my lab will be deployed to LUCI beta users by the end of the year,” Dr. Argall said. “Seeing technology from my lab roll out into a commercial product is super exciting. We're doing this work because we want to see it make an impact in the world.”

Project Drive’s ROUTE assistance system — developed with Function Engineering — will autonomously drive the wheelchair to a target destination within a known environment mapped via recorded data from sensors.

Other Shirley Ryan AbilityLab team members who are part of the Project Drive effort include Larisa Loke and Andrew Thompson, who are both mechanical engineering PhD students, and research assistant Joel Goh. Additionally, Devon Butts, physical therapist, and Sarah Van Dyck, occupational therapist — both also at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab — provide expertise in wheelchair use and evaluation.

The NSF Convergence Accelerator program supports the sustainable development of assistive and rehabilitative technologies to provide persons with functional impairments and their caregivers enhanced independence and engagement within the community and workforce.

Read more about Dr. Argall’s NSF award on the Northwestern University McCormick School of Engineering’s website.

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