Students turn $250 wheelchair into geo-positioning robot

Apr 16, 2014 by Jim Steele
SMAP student employees with the robot they made from a wheelchair and named Johnny Five. From left are Jean-Luc Burhop, Jared McArthur, Benjamin Christa, Jessica Sisk and Derek Johnson. Credit: Zita McCall | UAH

Talk about your Craigslist finds! A team of student employees at The University of Alabama in Huntsville's Systems Management and Production Center (SMAP) combined inspiration with innovation to make a $250 motorized wheelchair do the work of a $20,000 robot.

As its first official task, a remote-controlled version of the robot built on the cheap photographed a room and interior catalog of UAH's new Charger Union building for inventory and insurance purposes for the university's Physical Plant Administration Department. Equipped with a Ricoh panoramic camera on a mast, the machine rolls into position and snaps the shot, which is stitched together in an app and viewable on a smartphone within seconds.

Presently the positioning of the robot, named Johnny Five by the students, is remotely controlled manually but the final design will incorporate a small onboard computer with the ability to operate in an autonomous mode incorporating preselected geo-referenced waypoints throughout the building. The goal is to update photo imagery from the same location consistently over a number of years.

"It's kind of like a photographic Roomba," says SMAP principle research scientist Norven Goddard. "We can just set it out there and it knows where to go all by itself."

It all started when SMAP was brought in by the Jackson County School system to do 360-degree panoramic photography of school interiors as part of the Alabama School Safety program that requires interiors to be mapped in the Virtual Alabama Visual Display System for evacuation and safety purposes.

So SMAP principle research scientists Goddard and William Sabados joined their respective hardware and software teams into a five-person unit that developed a tripod that used four Go-Pro cameras. Complicated software developed by team members Jean-Luc Burhop, a sophomore from Madison, and Ben Christa, a junior from Hazel Green, stitched together a 360-degree view that was viewable through Google Maps.

"You could click on Google Maps and view any of the panoramas we'd taken," said Burhop. But it was time-consuming.

"We would spend between four and six hours per school," said team member Jessica Sisk, a senior from Jackson County. "The panoramas were not mandatory, but we did that as an extra." The views of the rooms can be helpful to firefighters, for example. Slowly, the Jackson County project got done.

"With the Charger Union being built, Kevin Bennett, the Physical Plant Administration planning and IT administrator, said why don't we photograph Charger Union?" Goddard said. The initial photos were done with the tripod system very soon after Charger Union was built.

Then SMAP director Dr. Gary Maddux tasked the team with developing a robot that could accommodate a variety of cargos on its mounts, like a small unmanned aerial vehicle, a camera or a Light Detecting and Ranging (LIDAR) scanner.

"We originally wanted something that would do a 360-degree turn on a dime," said team member Derek Johnson, a rising graduate student from Arab. But $20,000 was a steep price to pay for that capability. Then Sisk had her Craigslist inspiration.

"I just waited around here on a Saturday for the man to show up," said Goddard. "I paid him and we took delivery." The chair was stripped down to its undercarriage, the mast was attached and software to make its motor controllers remotely operate was developed by the team. A team member discovered the Ricoh panoramic camera, and inspiration met innovation.

After a few tests with the camera at the team's home base in Von Braun Research Hall and elsewhere, the bargain-basement device went to work. With Charger Union now fully furnished, the team used remote controls to position the robot to photograph the structure's interior. Next time, with the newly added computer and software, the will be able to do that by itself. But the team's not done yet.

"We're looking," said Sisk, "at being able to do this for police departments."

Explore further: Virtual robotization for human limbs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Ricoh shows off omnidirectional camera (w/ video)

Feb 06, 2013

(—A novel panoramic camera from Ricoh is under development and it is described as a step beyond compact and single-lens reflex (SLRs) cameras. Takaharu Asahina of the New Business Development Center, ...

Rubik's Cube solving robot at Scienceworks

Dec 04, 2013

The world's fastest Rubik's Cube-solving robot, developed by students at Swinburne University of Technology, is now permanently on display at Scienceworks in Melbourne.

Little bublcam places life in spherical perspective

Nov 05, 2013

( —Canada-based startup called Bubl Technology, founded in 2011, wants you to imagine being able to capture life in its bublcam, making, as it says, 360 degrees of your world available any time. ...

Soccer matches and concerts from any angle you choose

Sep 03, 2013

In future, soccer and music fans will be able to choose the camera angle when watching live matches and concerts on TV, or even enjoy a 360-degree view of proceedings: all thanks to a new panorama camera ...

Building an indoor 3-D map on the spot, via smartphone

Mar 21, 2014

The view from the basement laboratory is breathtaking. Not the one out the tiny windows of the half-underground office. It's on a smartphone that computer science Prof. Stergios Roumeliotis is using while walking around the ...

Recommended for you

Virtual robotization for human limbs

8 hours ago

Recent advances in computer gaming technology allow for an increasingly immersive gaming experience. Gesture input devices, for example, synchronise a player's actions with the character on the screen. Entertainment ...

Robots on reins could be the 'eyes' of firefighters

Mar 25, 2015

Researchers at King's College London have developed revolutionary reins that enable robots to act like guide dogs, which could enable that firefighters moving through smoke-filled buildings could save vital ...

Robot revolution will change world of work

Mar 24, 2015

Robots will fundamentally change the shape of the workforce in the next decade but many industries will still need a human touch, a QUT Future of Work Conference has heard.

Sawyer is a new face in collaborative robots

Mar 23, 2015

Sawyer is a new collaborative robot (robots that work with employees) from Boston, Massachusetts-based Rethink Robotics. In human terms, the salient feature about this robot is its friendly eyes on its "face" ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2014
Re:""It's kind of like a photographic Roomba," says SMAP principle research scientist Norven Goddard. "We can just set it out there and it knows where to go all by itself."

Couldn't you just buy a Roomba on Ebay for $200 and modify that instead of taking away supplies of wheelchairs for the needy? Medicare and Medicaid do not always pay for the wheelchair that one needs.
not rated yet Apr 16, 2014
Given the multiple makers and designs of powered wheelchairs out there, it may be un-economic to refurbish an obsolete and hard-worn model for further 'people' use. There are, after all, critical safety and reliability issues...

On a smaller scale, try finding an inexpensive source for the worn-out castors of a well-used 'attendant' wheelchair. Standard 'Trolley' wheels have the wrong sort of fill, will soon fall apart. You need the 'heavy duty' variety, but they come in the wrong sizes. If you're unlucky, you may have to update the whole fork assembly...

Another analogy is the battery pack on your elderly but reliable cordless drill/driver. Drill's fine, its NiCad battery has finally died. For the price of a 'new old' branded battery, you could buy a new drill with a 'Li-Ion' battery. So, source a 'new old' NiCad battery on e-bay despite a short-short warranty ? Send the battery to be professionally re-celled ? Groan and buy a new drill kit because you need it *today* ??

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.