Tennessee Tech grad creates autonomous wheelchair prototype

Brady's autonomous wheelchair prototype.
Tech grad Kaydn Brady's autonomous wheelchair prototype. 

Before recent Tennessee Tech graduate Kaydn Brady of Smyrna, Tennessee, walked across the stage during commencement this past spring, he could be frequently found navigating campus in a wheelchair. However, he wasn’t using the equipment because of his own physical need. He was working on creating an electric wheelchair that could make intelligent decisions for the one sitting in it. 

“My grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and arthritis and was forced to use an electric wheelchair to get around,” Brady said. “Unfortunately, she was constantly getting lost and struggled to control the wheelchair on her own. She could only drive it for a half an hour at a time. An autonomous electric wheelchair would solve both of those issues.”

Brady, who graduated with a master’s in electrical engineering, decided to use the opportunity to investigate the idea of self-driving wheelchairs for his project for Research and Creative Inquiry Day at Tech. The event is designed to promote student research and creativity, as well as giving them the chance to show off their skills to potential employers.

Before he took his design to the event, he spent countless hours testing the wheelchair on the university’s many varied sidewalks. His goal was to be able to use technology such as GPS, movement sensors and light sensors to take in information about where the wheelchair was, recognize the type of terrain on which it was traveling, and get the passenger safely and quickly to their desired destination. 

“This would require a means to recognize the boundaries of drivable pathways, objects that may obstruct the path, the layout of the paths in a large area and the system’s current position within the layout of the sidewalk paths,” Brady explained. “It was also important to ensure the system can make these decisions in real time, because what good is a system that recognizes there is an object in the way after it already hits the object?”

Brady was successful in creating the prototype of the technology that allowed him to cross Tech’s campus safely and quickly in the wheelchair by sidewalk. 

“Kaydn’s work is a great example of how engineering can be used to help physically challenged people gain their mobility independence,” said Brady’s advisor, Ali Alouani, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tech. “He took a manually controlled electric chair and made it fully autonomous so that people with physical challenges can move from place to place by simply speaking the destination to go to. He has successfully demonstrated this capability across Tennessee Tech’s campus.”

Professor Ali Alouani pictured with Brady's autonomous wheelchair prototype.
Professor Ali Alouani pictured with Brady's autonomous wheelchair prototype.

There are currently no immediate plans to create a commercial version of his creation, as there are still many improvements to be made to make it a viable option to the public, such as creating a way for the design to work indoors as well.

“More work is needed to add more capabilities to the wheelchair and to ensure that it is safe to drive anywhere. We are looking for funding sources to bring this wheelchair to a commercial level,” Alouani said.

Brady says the project was a big part of his education at Tech, not only increasing his knowledge of machine learning, computer vision, artificial intelligence, control system design, and sensor fusion, but also fine-tuning his skills in research, organization, problem solving and programing.

“I chose Tennessee Tech because I wanted to stay in-state and it was one of the more affordable schools for engineering, while still being top in the state,” Brady said. “After graduation, I’ve joined the aerospace industry where I still use some of these controls and machine-learning topics.”

In addition to Alouani, Brady also thanks his other advisor at Tech, Tarek Elfouly, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, for their guidance and ideas for improvement on the project.

“Kaydn’s work is a testimony that Tennessee Tech can compete anywhere in the world when it comes to technology innovations,” Alouani said. “He used artificial intelligence and control systems to provide a very affordable solution to a challenging problem. I am very proud of Kaydn.  He was very dedicated to his challenging research that he has finished in a record time.”

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