Road Trip! ATRS Goes on Summer Tour


Automotive access as we know it got a little "smarter" this summer, as the Automated Transport and Retrieval System (ATRS) was demonstrated and discussed in a couple of public forums, including the annual Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) conference in Atlanta and at the Green Lane, Pa., headquarters of Freedom Lift.

ATRS — in development by Freedom Lift, its parent company Cook Technologies, and three renowned research facilities (Carnegie Mellon University, Lehigh University and the University of Pittsburgh) — deploys a power wheelchair from inside a van or similar vehicle, down the vehicle ramp and around to where its user awaits (either in the driver's or a passenger seat).

"Things couldn't have fallen into place any better for us," said Cook Technologies president Tom Panzarella, referring to ATRS' presentation at the RESNA event. "The keynote speaker at RESNA this year was Takeo Kinade. He's from the University of Japan, and he's also from Carnegie Mellon University. He's a world renowned roboticist, and most of Mr. Kanade's experience in robotics has to do with the military, NASA and things like that. Robotics has never really gotten into the assistive technology arena, so I was watching all the occupational and physical therapists (attendees) saying, 'What the heck's going on?' But Takeo did a wonderful job and pretty much set up what we were trying to introduce."

Panzarella acknowledged that robotic projects are not new to RESNA-type crowds, but pointed out, "There's a lot of research and a lot of white papers, but nothing ever gets to the commercialization level. After the keynote address, our presentation hit right on how to utilize things like laser-navigation robotics and also vision robotics in a very economic fashion."

While assistive technology has seen smart wheelchairs and walking aids before, Panzarella said the technology paled compared to what's available in other fields. "The technologies that were being offered were very archaic because they were early stage developmental efforts," he said. "Nothing as robust as what the military is using today in successful missions." ATRS, Panzarella said, has made inroads in a couple of key technologies: vision (using a digital camera and signaling) and lasers. He alluded to those types of technologies currently available in commercial vehicles, including the family sport utility. (Think about some cars' abilities to check before backing up to "see" if a child, tricycle or other obstacle is in the way.)

"(Technology) has gotten smarter and more affordable at the same time," Panzarella said.

How will ATRS progress from here? Freedom Lift folks will be on hand at Medtrade in Atlanta next month to discuss the possibilities — see them in booth 3475.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Mobility Management.

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