University of Illinois developing 'Star Wars'-inspired self-driving wheelchair

For their latest life-changing invention, University of Illinois researchers took inspiration from Star Wars.

They've developed a hands-free wheelchair, that could eventually operate like a self-driving car.

In a galaxy about 136 miles away, a revolution in mobility is taking shape.

"You know BB-8 had just come out in Star Wars and we were thinking ‘hey, that's a real robot, can we convert that robot to being this wheelchair’," said Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler, professor of mechanical science and engineering.

Paralympian Adam Bleakney helped design the chair.


During a test run, he was able to hold his wife's hand, sip a cup of coffee and roll, for the very first time.

"In a similar fashion, I have two kids that are older now, but when they were younger, crossing the street was difficult because I couldn't hold their hands and push," Bleakney said.

The chair, nicknamed PURE for Personalized Unique Rolling Experience, uses what's called "ballbot" technology. It is operated like a Segway, where the rider leans in a desired direction.

"To be able to move in ways and directions that you just can't in a 4-wheel device cut out notably the ability to move side to side so a sliding movement, it's a lateral movement," Bleakney said.

When PURE is available for consumers, the expectation is that it will be able to run all day with self-docking and charging capabilities, and come with a self-driving feature.

"We're really putting a spotlight on the value of people with disabilities because I believe strongly that they're the portal to a new higher level of innovation," said Professor Deana McDonagh of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

It took five years for the University of Illinois to get to this point, and they've still got more testing to do, but they hope when the chair is available to everyone, it will also be affordable.

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