A huge number of people with limited mobility still have no other choice but to spend the majority of time at home because a lot of cities and towns do not have a suitable infrastructure for those who have to use mobility aids like wheelchairs, mobility scooters, crutches, walkers, and other tools.
According to various studies around 10%-12% of people worldwide have mobility issues that result in significant difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Governments and NGOs all over the globe invest money and effort in the identification of the existing barriers and their gradual removal. However, the reality is that a huge number of people with limited mobility still have no other choice but to spend the majority of time at home because a lot of cities and towns do not have a suitable infrastructure for those who have to use mobility aids like wheelchairs, mobility scooters, crutches, walkers, and other tools.
When we are talking about people with limited mobility we should bear in mind that in many cases we will deal not only with those who were born with disabilities. In this case, we should also mention people who faced mobility issues as a result of an accident or illness. Moreover, such issues may also have a temporary character. Given all these factors, it is vital to focus not only on urban infrastructure but also on the home environment, as well as conditions for working and studying that people will need to deal with. It means that we need to cover a quite wide category of existing issues and possible solutions.
As well as in many other cases, modern technologies can be a good answer to address the existing difficulties. Artificial intelligence has already found its use cases in many projects aimed at increasing the quality of life for people with disabilities. It’s worth highlighting that the needs of people with limited mobility can be also catered to with the power of AI.
Let us share our thoughts on how is it possible to use the opportunities that AI offers us to make it easier for everyone to deal with numerous daily tasks without external help.
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Examples of AI-powered solutions
To begin with, we’d like to start with the solutions that are already widely used in many families and facilitate a lot of processes for them, even if their members do not experience any health problems or issues with their physical conditions. However, for people with physical disabilities and mobility difficulties, they will have a much more significant role.
We are talking about voice-controlled home automation systems that are able to interpret voice commands and perform various tasks from simple ones like turning music on or off to telling a user who is ringing at the doorbell (in this case, the system should be also enriched with face recognition tools). Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home Assistant are among the most well-known examples provided by tech giants but today there are many more solutions of this kind being developed by ambitious startups. Already now we can speak about the growing adoption of such systems and it will be reasonable to presuppose that in the future even more families will leverage the benefits of such solutions.
AI-powered self-driving cars also have huge potential for enhancing the freedom of mobility and eliminating physical isolation. Thanks to driverless cars developed by Waymo, Tesla, General Motors and others will allow people to avoid a lot of issues related to the use of public transport and traditional cars as well as the lack of possibility to get from point A to point B due to their physical disabilities. Though there are still a lot of things to do to make the use of such means of transportation fully safe, today the expectations are very high and we can hope that in some years they will become more accessible and affordable for a wide audience of drivers.
Another example of using the capacities of AI in the context of reducing barriers for people with limited mobility is the introduction of robotic assistance for mobility and the creation of new solutions built upon the existing mobility aids, such as wheelchairs or walkers, for example. Quite often people with disabilities are not able to use traditional wheelchairs on their own (or have serious difficulties while doing it). Nevertheless, AI can address this problem by perceiving audio commands from the user which can provide users with much more freedom of movement. Moreover, not every person can use traditional joysticks. Such conditions as spinal cord injury, spinal muscular atrophy, motor neurone disease, and some others can affect the hand function of people. An Australia-based company Control Bionics that focuses on advanced assistive technology developed a wireless wearable device NeuroNode. It lets people rely on their brain signals to fulfill different tasks that are typically performed with the help of a touch screen, keyboard, joystick, or mouse. To control a cursor on a screen people can eye-track and to opt for some actions they need to send a neural signal. The adoption of such solutions can also become a real game-changer for people who have difficulties in controlling the muscles that are required for speaking as they will be able to communicate with others with the help of brain-operated text-to-speech tools.
In collaboration with Deakin University’s Applied AI Institute, Control Bionics created DROVE which is known as the first autonomous driving wheelchair module in the world. The module has been already tested by users at their homes. It is powered by the NeuroNode interface and a digital camera system mounted on a wheelchair. Moreover, to ensure centimeter accuracy, researchers installed sensors at the locations where it was planned to use the solution. The system has proved its efficiency by demonstrating its ability to navigate tight doorways, detect unexpected obstacles, and always leave the wheelchair in the required position.
The researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have also contributed to building an inclusive mobility future. They developed the technology that allows users to control the movement of a wheelchair with the power of their mind. It includes a skullcap with electrodes and they can detect those brain signals that regulate movement. A laptop that is mounted on a wheelchair has AI-powered software that can translate these signals into wheel movements. It means that to move a wheelchair a person needs to imagine how he or she is moving legs or arms.
The row of examples of smart robotic solutions for people with disabilities is rather wide.
LEA (the Lean Empowering Assistant) is a robotic walker introduced by Robot Care Systems with a view to increasing stability and safety for elderly people and people with reduced mobility. LEA is powered by sensor technology that can ensure autonomous navigation by scanning the environment and reacting to different conditions. Let’s suppose that LEA detects that there is an object on the floor that can cause a fall of a user. After the detection of an obstacle, the system will notify a person and the walker will slow down to ensure a high level of safety.
There are also different projects that address some particular needs of people with highly limited mobility. While some robots, like RIBA, can lift up a person from a bed and set down to a wheelchair (or vice versa), some others can become dining companies and feed them. Obi is a good example of the solutions from the latter category. It is designed to reduce assistance required for people with disabilities. Obi has several bowls for food and a robotic arm. It can learn where it should deliver a spoon with food after a caregiver once shows this to it.
Speaking about possible solutions for people with limited mobility, we also have to mention AI-powered prosthetics and exoskeletons. AI helps to overcome the existing limitations of traditional prosthetics. It is possible thanks to providing enhanced functionality, much more intuitive control, and better signal decoding. ML and AI help to adapt prosthetics to various conditions and environments in accordance with the feedback from the user’s body.
Exoskeletons are wearables that support movement and expand the physical capacities of people. Artificial Intelligence can make movements more neutral and reduce the required physical efforts which makes such devices more user-friendly.
In 2021, researchers at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, made headlines when it was revealed that they had started testing AI-powered semi-autonomous exoskeletons. These exoskeletons are intended to help people with limited mobility walk again with the help of robotic prostheses enriched with deep-learning technologies. What makes this project special is that human thought is not required for controlling exoskeletons. It is possible to compare them with autonomous vehicles that can drive themselves. These exoskeletons can walk themselves. The robotic limbs have sensors and cameras that provide images to computer-vision algorithms for analyzing the surroundings. For example, when stairs are detected, the exoskeleton’s control system will get a signal to start a relevant scenario. It will include such commands as lifting a knee and stepping down or up depending on the exact location of a user. It means that people wearing exoskeletons can move while their movements will be controlled by special software.
AI-powered exoskeletons are expected to play a significant role in helping individuals with disabilities and also elderly people. Such wearables of different types can be useful not only for moving around but also for lifting and carrying heavy objects and reducing the load on the human body. Though right now, a lot of products are available only as prototypes, we can presuppose that with the time flow, great progress will be made in this field.
It’s always inspiring to observe how technologies can be used in real life. And it is even more inspiring to see that they can be used to help people who face various difficulties caused by impairments and health states. While traditional walking aids have a lot of restrictions and drawbacks, AI can become a great booster in the development of more advanced, more powerful, and more convenient-to-use solutions. Of course, at the current moment, such solutions (even if already commercially available) have a rather limited target audience due to their high costs. Nevertheless, their appearance is already excellent proof that the work in this sphere is going on and a lot of researchers and businesses are ready to make their contributions.
In the next articles in this series, we will discuss other use cases of AI and possibilities to leverage the power of this technology. If it sounds interesting to you, just don’t miss our posts!
About the Author:
In his current position, Artem Pochechuev leads a team of talented engineers. Oversees the development and implementation of data-driven solutions for Sigli’s customers. He is passionate about using the latest technologies and techniques in data science to deliver innovative solutions that drive business value. Outside of work, Artem enjoys cooking, ice-skating, playing piano, and spending time with his family.