It's been well over a year since we last saw the laser-guided, self-docking wheelchair
developed by folks at Lehigh University, and now the team is back with an altogether more ambitious project. According to associate professor John Spletzer, the recipient of a five-year CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, the goal is to "extend the autonomy of the wheelchair so it can navigate completely in an urban setting and take you wherever you need to go." This will be done by equipping robotic chairs with laser and camera sensors (which the team developed for the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge
) as well as exhaustive, Google Street View-esque maps of the city where they will be operating. Of course, these guys will be operating in a busy urban environment, so in addition to large-scale 3D maps, they must be equipped with motion planning features for operating in dense crowds and a changing environment. It's too soon yet to say when these things might become available commercially, but if you're a resident of the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown, PA, you might have your chance to test one soon enough.