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Researchers have been working on a project to design robotic wheelchairs that can move safely through crowded areas.

The device, part wheelchair, part robot, uses technology that aims to test the ethical and technical feasibility of developing robots for potential use as assistive or service robots in crowded areas, similar to the way self-driving cars could be used in areas containing pedestrians.

Interestingly, researchers have found that existing legislation does not address safety issues such as the people surrounding the robots and the robot users themselves in terms of the risk of collision.

Therefore, to assess the risks, scientists used a robot developed in Japan, named Qolo, which was originally designed as a standing wheelchair that enabled users to move from a sitting to a standing position by using a passive exoskeleton and two motorised wheels.

A Lidar system with lasers front and rear, together with front mounted cameras, enable Qolo to analyse and react to the immediate surroundings and avoid obstacles and collisions through 360 degrees, and in particular, to ascertain whether the obstacles are pedestrians.

Qulo is not actually programmed to stop, but front bumpers measure the force in the event of any contact so that the force can be kept to a minimum while the robot is still moving. This enables it to move around obstacles rather than come to a potentially dangerous sudden stop.

In addition to data from sensors combining with tracking algorithms and people detectors, the researchers have developed a specific navigation algorithm which allows Qulo to opt for the best path within milliseconds – enabling a quick response in crowds.

The unpredictable rapid direction changes and sudden movements which people make cannot be detected which is why real-world trials conditions are ongoing. So far, it seems that the semi-autonomous aspect of the machine is functioning effectively. The assisted navigation which enables objects to be avoided could be advantageous for people with disabilities, as well as providing possibilities for autonomous deliveries.

Ultimately, safety is paramount but when the time comes that the risks are mitigated then the potential for us to see devices like this becoming more mainstream out and about is there.