New Tech on the cutting edge
Soon, you could be seeing the seniors at your neighbourhood eldercare home breezily zooming about sans caregiver, thanks to a team of researchers who have designed a self-driving wheelchair.
(But don’t worry, it won’t be on the same scale as the Singapore Grand Prix.)
Besides improving the mobility of the wheelchair-bound, the self-driving or autonomous wheelchair is also meant to address the manpower shortage that many eldercare centres are currently facing.
“Caregivers normally have to wheel the elderly around, but if there were self-driving wheelchairs, the elderly person merely needs to direct the chair to go to places like the pantry and washroom. This way, caregivers don’t have to be physically present,” said Mr James Tan, Deputy Director, Emerging Tech at Govtech’s Government Digital Services (GDS) division.
Mr Tan heads the relatively new Emerging Tech team, which worked in collaboration with partners such as the Ministry of Health on the wheelchair, and independently on several other projects such as a smart walking stick and a smart traffic cone.
(Trivia: The team does 10-minute standing meetings every day.)
These projects are designed to tackle actual real-world problems using proven technologies.
Eyes and Ears
Case in point: The autonomous wheelchair.
To detect obstacles, the wheelchair is equipped with ultrasonic sensors on three sides. An internal compass helps orient it, while wheel odometers measure its speed.
Users can also add more wheelchairs to form convoys, for shuttling groups of seniors to physiotherapy sessions, for example.
According to Mr Tan, instead of requiring five people to push five wheelchairs, just one person is needed to lead the way in a convoy.
The wheelchair is also meant to function much like any self-driving vehicle would, but perhaps with even more sensitivity, as it is designed to avoid obstacles such as tables, stairs, flowerpots and human traffic.
Indeed, for a vulnerable group like the elderly, smart-sensing devices can help to keep a few eyes and ears out, somewhat easing the workload and stress on caregivers.
Another innovation by the team, a smart walking stick, allows caregivers to monitor the whereabouts of seniors through GPS and other sensors, said Mr Tan.
Equipped with an accelerometer to detect sudden falls, the walking stick will trigger an alert to the caregiver’s mobile phone through an app in the event of a fall.The nifty, multi-purpose device also possesses a built-in flashlight, an SOS button and radio functions.
“These functions are integrated into our electronics such that the flashlight can be turned on after dark and the SOS function can also be automatically triggered when a fall is detected,” Mr Tan said.
In fact, the walking stick allows caregivers to create a ‘geo-fence’, which is basically a virtual boundary around the home or facility.
If one of their wards happens to wander beyond a certain distance from home, the caregiver will be alerted.
The smart walking stick, which was developed entirely in-house and without agency partners, represents how GDS is geared towards everyday, real-life solutions.
“This is a product that GDS created on our own. Our thinking was that care centres and social service societies might find it useful,” Mr Tan said.
Making roads work around roadworks
The team has also developed a smart traffic cone, which uses pretty-much the same technology that’s in the smart walking stick.
The cone, which is equipped with GPS and impact sensors, can be used to transmit data on the construction sites and roadworks it demarcates.
Innocuous as it may seem, the cone can serve several useful purposes.
Apps such as Google Maps and Waze rely on crowdsourcing to identify where roadworks are, but as Mr Tan pointed out, drivers are not supposed to be marking out locations on their smartphone while driving.
“Furthermore, by the time you do mark it down, you are probably already 300 metres away. So it’s not accurate,” he explained.
With smart cones emitting GPS locations, there is no more question of inaccuracy, Mr Tan said, adding that they are working with Google to implement this.
“And from the Government’s perspective, if we can take this data and make a heat map, we have a very good overview of where the roadworks and construction are around Singapore,” Mr Tan said.
Potentially, the Government can then identify where too many roadworks are creating traffic jams and rectify the situation.
Remarkably, in just a handful of months, the team has gotten these three tech prototypes past the proof-of-concept stage.
They are now awaiting the right agency partners to conduct trials on their prototypes.
“While we are trying to work with the Municipal Services Office on the cone project, it is still purely a GDS product,” Mr Tan explained.
“So if anyone is interested, we would love to pitch it to them!”