MIT Intelligent Wheelchair Project: A Voice-Commandable Robotic Wheelchair That Climbs Stairs


New engineering developments offer opportunities to develop smart wheelchair assistive technology that can improve the lives of many people who use wheelchairs. In our work, we are designing tomorrow’s intelligent wheelchairs: we are developing a voice-commandable intelligent wheelchair that is aware of its surroundings so that it can assist its user in a variety of tasks.

The goal of this smart wheelchair project is to enhance an ordinary powered wheelchair using sensors to perceive the wheelchair’s surroundings, a speech interface to interpret commands, a wireless device for room-level location determination, and motor-control software to effect the wheelchair’s motion.

The robotic wheelchair learns the layout of its environment (hospital, rehabilitation center, home, etc.) through a narrated, guided tour given by the user or the user’s caregivers. Subsequently, the wheelchair can move to any previously-named location under voice command (e.g., “Take me to the cafeteria”). This technology is appropriate for people who have lost mobility due to brain injury or the loss of limbs, but who retain speech. The technology can also enhance safety for users who use ordinary joystick-controlled powered wheelchairs, by preventing collisions with walls, fixed objects, furniture and other people.

We envision that a voice-commandable wheelchair could improve the quality of life and safety of tens of thousands of users. Moreover, considerable health improvements and cost savings could accrue through the reduction or elimination of collision-induced injuries such as wounds and broken limbs. We are currently working closely with at The Boston Home, a specialized-care residence for adults with multiple sclerosis and other progressive neurological conditions. Our efforts are inspired and motivated by the insights, feedback, and needs of The Boston Home’s residents, staff, and family members.

Our team of faculty, students, and researchers come from several departments (Aeronautics and Astronautics; Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Engineering Systems Division) and laboratories (the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the MIT AgeLab) from across MIT. Our efforts in developing this intelligent wheelchair span multiple domains, including robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, human computer interaction and user interface design, speech recognition systems, and the role of technology for people with disabilities and people who are getting older.

Additional Files
Overall The Boston Home Project Video (MIT videos)
Demonstration video of narrated guided tour capability
Presentation at The Boston Home Open House, April 12, 2010 (PDF)
Demonstration of the wheelchair as “envoy” for a visitor, August 2011 (mp4)
Demonstration of a low cost wheelchair arm Arpil 2013 (mp4)
Demonstration of the semantic mapping framework using a guided tour of the Stata building and courtyard

Selected Media Coverage

Wheelchairs that listen, The Boston Globe, April 26, 2010

MIT adds robotics, voice control to wheelchair, Mass High Tech, September 19, 2008

Learn more here

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