NEPWAK Research Project

“Assistance from a distance”

Ankit Arora, a graduate student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Ryerson University, Toronto is part of a Research Team that is set to revolutionize one aspect of care-giving by developing the ability to remotely control wheelchairs via the Internet.

The “Network Enabled Powered Wheelchair Adapter Kit” project seeks to enhance existing powered wheelchairs with video, audio and control services and furnish them with a degree of remote controllability through the Internet. The project was selected as one of the winners of the “Self” category in the yearly “digifest” competition— On the Move. It was on an interactive display at the Ontario Science Centre in May. The NEPWAK project has already received international recognition from Microsoft in the form of a Research Excellence Award in Embedded Systems.

The project was undertaken by the Network-Centric Applied Research Team (N-CART), at Ryerson University, with Alexander Ferworn (Professor, Computer Science) Ankit Arora (Graduate Student, Electrical and Computer Engineering) Wing Shiu (Instructor, Continuing Education) and Devin Ostrom (Technical Officer).

What happens if no one is sitting in a wheelchair but it's still moving? It used to be that you'd worry something bizarre was going on, but not any more. Now it may simply be that the device is being operated by remote control, via the Internet.

The team has developed a system by which wheelchairs and other assistive devices can be controlled by an operator who has an online connection— and they don't have to by nearby to make the chair move.

"While I'm only sitting ten feet away from the actual chair, I might as well be across the planet," explains Ryerson's Alexander Ferworn. "We can control this wheelchair from anywhere we have an Internet connection. Our project is called N.E.P.W.A.K.: network enabled power wheelchair adapter kit. Its inspiration is to try and help people who might require assistance from a distance." And he adds, "We can include the speed of transmission. We can improve the type of medical information we are able to send back and make it very reliable."

The project was funded by Microsoft and gives care-givers, audio-visual contact with wheelchair users via the Net, and in an emergency, it lets them control the device.

And the invention is no surprise to industry experts.

Arora says that he would like to continue the research into telerobotics in the future. And will that include working on future vehicles that would roam Jupiter? Ankit laughs, "Maybe."

This article was first published in the Weekly Voice on July 03, 2004.