ISE Team Receives NSF National I-Corps Award to Study the Market for Autonomous Wheelchairs

A School of Engineering Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering team led by associate professor Zhimin Xi has been studying autonomous wheelchairs for five years. “A wheelchair is more human than a chair and should be as reliable as a good pair of shoes,” Xi insists. Their research has culminated with a $50,000 NSF National I-Corps Program grant to study and identify market opportunities for autonomous wheelchairs. 

The autonomous wheelchair could provide underserved and disadvantaged communities with more efficient, affordable, reliable and accessible transportation options. By minimizing the number of wheelchair-related injuries due to inappropriate operation or potentially dangerous situations, it also enhances safety for end-users. 

Xi, along with doctoral student Elnaz Asghari Torkamani have demonstrated the feasibility of developing affordable and reliable autonomous wheelchairs through an innovative navigation method that can significantly reduce the cost for computing collision-free navigation without sacrificing travel time and ride comfort.   

“We cannot afford to use autonomous cars’ technologies for wheelchairs, and yet the wheelchair’s operating conditions are more unpredictable than those of cars,” Xi explains. “We must have system-level thinking to design the product, meet end-users’ needs, and gain their trust.” 

A Long and Winding Research Road 

Xi recalled how they “studied the existing method; discussed improvements and new ideas; improved the method to be more generally applicable for different robots; filed a provisional patent and converted it to a patent cooperation treaty, or PCT filed through Rutgers for Research; published journal articles; attended the Rutgers I-Corps program; attended the NSF I-Corps Northeast Regional Program in August for wheelchair applications, where the team receive $3,000 in funding for market discovery,” before receiving the National I-Corps Program award. 

Through the NSF I-Corps Northeast Regional Program, Xi along with co-entrepreneur leaders (EL) Torkamani and Lichuan Ren interviewed more than 20 wheelchair uses and companies to identify  and match users’ pain points with market opportunities. 

In September, the team’s autonomous navigation innovation,  even at an early stage 3 technology readiness level (TRL) was selected as a 2022 Defense TechConnect Innovator at Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo in Washington DC.  

The Path Forward 

“The award will support any market study related expenses for Torkamani and additional co-EL Zhetao Chen,” says Xi. “They will conduct more than 100 interviews related to the wheelchair industry – including end users, manufacturers, and insurers – to pinpoint the match between technology and market opportunities. A Rutgers start-up will be formed, and the team will meet with venture capitalists.” 

“Enhanced mobility can create an equitable and inclusive environment for wheelchair users in disadvantaged communities, by enabling them to navigate independently, safely, and worry-free in a crowd,” predicts Xi.  

In addition, he adds, “the technology – with its two critical competitive factors of being less expensive and more reliable –  can be extended to any autonomous service robot.”