ability lab

Dr. Brenna Argall wants to make an autonomous wheelchair


Crain's Chicago Business


Argall and her colleagues are working on a smart version of a familiar off-road vehicle: a wheelchair. Backed with $2.5 million in federal grants, they hope to field a commercially feasible model within five years that leaves the user in charge but learns from what it's told, making control simpler, reaction time faster and collision avoidance easier.

The plan is to get robot-assist down to the price of a cheap laptop.


In Argall's Assistive & Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory in Streeterville, a switched-on wheelchair, responding to headrest movements, navigates a narrow doorway more quickly than a dumb version. A customized version with a robotic arm, in theory, could adapt to changing user needs and intuit such concepts as cups are things that need not be opened.

As a pre-med student, Argall became fascinated with the (still unrealized) prospect of nanobots chewing up blood clots. She was at robot-centric Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, majoring in math (and getting the pi symbol tattooed on her left wrist).

After she opted for a doctorate in robotics, her research remains patient-centric. The wheelchair-bound told her that pricing is "more important even than having a fully capable system," she says, adding, “We don't expect this to be covered by insurance anytime soon.”