In this interview with REHACARE.com, Prof. Bernd Krieg-Brückner from Bremen Ambient Assisted Living Lab at German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence explains how small technical components are not only able to make everyday life easier but also contribute to increasing mobility.
Prof. Krieg-Brückner, what does ASSAM stand for and what are the goals of the project?
Prof. Bernd Krieg-Brückner: Within the EU context, the project was operated under the name "Assistants for Safe Mobility". Our aim is to make a number of technologies available that compensate for age-related restrictions on individual users and are easy to handle.
Fifteen years ago, we already started to develop autonomous wheelchairs. We gradually transferred this technology to other devices. This includes a rolling walker that assists the user to find his/her way with the help of a navigation assistant, an electric scooter that brakes on slopes and powers up a hill, and a rolling walker or wheelchair that automatically avoids obstacles.
Who participated in the project?
Krieg-Brückner: Our consortium includes nine partners from three different countries – Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. It is made up of both industry and research partners, that being universities. We also had partners who were in charge of evaluations within the scope of field studies. In Germany, this was the Johanniter Association (St. John Association) here in Bremen, in the Netherlands a foundation that supports persons with visual impairments and in Spain an organization that conducts care classifications for senior citizens and recommends equipment.
What mobility assistants does the project particularly focus on?
Krieg-Brückner: We focus on three mobility aids: a wheelchair, a rolling walker and a three-wheeler which we newly designed. All of them promote everyday mobility so that the users don’t have to miss out on their usual social contacts and are also able to enjoy better health.
What are the special characteristics of the individual mobility components?
Krieg-Brückner: Not all components are ready for the market and still need to be further developed in follow-up projects. This is very important to us.
A scooter with electric powered rear wheels for inclines or driving downhill has a great chance in the market. We also developed a navigation assistance system for this scooter that helps to avoid obstacles. This assistance is perfectly suited for visually impaired persons.
The previously mentioned three-wheeler can be purchased in Spain. We also equipped a wheelchair with a driving assistant that is geared for indoor use. Intended objects in charted interior spaces are autonomously targeted with voice command. With the help of laser scanners, the assistant automatically drives around obstacles or stops at a bed in a predetermined direction for instance. All of this was tested here at the Ambient Assistant Living Lab in Bremen in a specifically furnished 60 square meter (645 square foot) apartment.
For use outside, we mounted an additional laser scanner in a tilted position behind the user’s head. It is able to detect obstacles, potholes, ditches or barriers, for instance, in a three-dimensional perspective. Other than that, the laser scanner is only configured to avoid obstacles up to ten centimeters in height. This is sufficient for typical homes. The wheelchair is also able to automatically back up and maneuver through narrow doorways.
The St. John Accident Assistance ("Johanniter Unfall-Hilfe") has tested the assistance components in everyday situations. What insights were you able to gain from these field studies?
Krieg-Brückner: One basic insight we gained from the project and initially underestimated is to pay close attention to the test subjects in terms of their individual skills and needs. Ultimately, our equipment is adapted to this and adjusted with a corresponding configuration. It is primarily necessary to train the caregivers and test persons so they are able to accurately assess the equipment options. Based on its laser scanner technology, for instance, the wheelchair does not detect any obstacles made of glass. If the surroundings are not set up or charter for this, the test persons and caregivers need to adapt to these subtleties and personally intervene if necessary.
EU funding for this research project expired in 2015. Now it’s important to not drop the ball. How is the interest in Germany?
Krieg-Brückner: The interest increases with the name recognition of the equipment of course. The German market is still emerging for the three-wheeler. Interest in mobility assistance is especially high for the electric power scooter. We are currently in negotiations with a well-known rollator company.
The main problem with wheelchairs is that the market becomes smaller with increasing disability levels. Unfortunately, this is also why the willingness to actually go the distance to a market launch is also dwindling. Yet we are still optimistic in this case since we keep using increasingly cost-efficient components as the technology advances.