Mobility for Life (a self-driving wheelchair project)

Using AI and self-driving technology to improve the lives of vulnerable community members

Photo of Maya Burhanpurkar
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Eligibility: Are you employed by T-Mobile or related to an employee of T-Mobile?

  • No

Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Twitter: @mburhanpurkar Instagram: @mburhanpurkar News article by Harvard Engineering:

Date Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)

1. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project? NOTE: All applications must include a 1 minute video that answers: “I am stepping up to make change because..."

When I was a child, my grandfather had a series of debilitating strokes, which rendered him partially paralysed. As a result, I witnessed him transition from being an active senior citizen to being bedridden. As someone with scientific inclinations and a knack for computer from a young age (, I decided to do something to help those in similar situations as my grandfather in the future. Several years later, I began working in an autonomous robotics lab at the University of Toronto and spearheaded a project to apply their self-driving technologies to wheelchairs for the elderly. This project was met with incredible success, which I presented to the scientific community at an international research conference in London, England. Since then, we have partnered with the world’s largest wheelchair manufacturer to spread this technology to those who need it most.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Millions of power wheelchair users suffer from a range of severe upper-body disabilities: quadriplegia, tremors, ALS, Parkinson’s, MS, and others. Controlling their wheelchairs via joysticks, sip-and-puff controls, or other input devices can be an incredible struggle. This results in millions of disabled individuals suffering from a lack of meaningful engagement with society, a lack of gainful employment, and ultimately reduced life expectancies.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

In 2016, I partnered with a lab at the University of Toronto to apply driverless car technology to power wheelchairs for fully autonomous point-to-point navigation. After several years, we developed a system that allows users to travel around their houses and many other indoor locations, such as shopping malls or grocery stores, completely autonomously ( This very low-cost and simple-to-use technology could allow some of the most vulnerable people in society to regain their mobility and dignity and to contribute to society in meaningful ways not currently possible. The need for such technology is not only compelling on moral grounds, but also on statistical grounds. There are over 6.7 million power wheelchairs in use in Canada and the United States alone and an estimated 20 million power wheelchairs in G20 countries. We have already fully developed such a retrofit-style system that would allow wheelchair users to keep their current chairs and simply add on our computers which allow for self-driving capabilities at very low cost. We believe this represents a life-altering game changer for the elderly and those with severe disabilities.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

Our autonomous system comes with two packages: a fully autonomous package and a semi-autonomous package. The fully autonomous package is for use in areas the user is often found, such as their homes. Before an initial use, a caretaker pushes the chair around, allowing it to create a map of the environment. They then identify principle locations, such as “kitchen” or “bathroom”. After this, a user can command the chair to drive to any of these locations using whatever input device they need based on their condition, such as eye-tracking or speech-recognition. The semi-autonomous package aids users in completing the most common and difficult tasks associated with wheelchair usage: travelling through narrow doorways (difficult with insensitive joystick controls), travelling down long corridors (challenging for those with tremors), and parking at tables and desks for dinner or work.

5. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Unlike other existing self-driving wheelchair technologies: a) Low cost: we avoid using high cost computing and sensors employed by other autonomous systems (e.g. the MIT system: ~$70k; our system: ~$700) b) Retrofit system: unlike other autonomous systems that require a user to purchase a new wheelchair, our system can simply be added on to existing wheelchairs, so users who already have wheelchairs do not need to make an additional investment c) It actually works: our technology outperforms the competition by leveraging the state-of-the-art in AI and machine vision research

6. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

Once we begin deploying the wheelchair systems, the impact of our project will be immediate. We hope that each person who uses a wheelchair will benefit from their newfound stress-free mobility, which can be monitored via regular surveys to check on the technology and the progress of the users. Importantly, it is not just the 6.7 million power wheelchairs in the United States who have the potential to benefit. Caregiver syndrome affects the many millions of caregivers who assist chronically ill patients, resulting in dramatically reduced quality of life not just the patient, but also the caregiver who is often a family member. It is therefore our hope that this intervention will reduce the burden on caregivers by allowing the user greater independence.

7. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

Now that the major challenge of developing and perfecting the technology has been accomplished, the next steps are twofold: 1. We are currently partnering with a 40-year-old company, Simcoe Habilitation Services (SHS), that provides physiotherapy and occupational therapy services to its clients. They have agreed to administer pilot trials of the technology to clientele if given funding. 2. As a non-profit venture, our goal would be to partner with an existing wheelchair manufacturer and make the technology available to those who need it. This would allow us to spread beyond the community of the company mentioned above and reach a global userbase.

8. Future Support: What are the resources needed to make your vision a reality?

The main resource we lack is funding. To partner with SHS, we must make the components of our technology freely available to the company and subsidize the time their clinicians spend administering the intervention. Likewise, any further field trials would require additional funding. We are already in talks with Pride, Permobil, and Sunrise Medical, three of the largest wheelchair manufacturers in the world, all of whom are excitedly awaiting our field trial results. Pride, the world’s largest wheelchair manufacturer, has been a major supporter of the project and donated two of their wheelchairs for us to use during development. Once we have the funding to complete trials, our technology will be available to users around the world.

9. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

10. Ripple Effect: Please share some ideas of how you could partner with other changemakers or involve other young people as leaders in making a difference.

During the engineering process, we were able to engage hundreds of Canadian high school students by temporarily relocating our lab to a high school as an outreach project. The students had the opportunity to learn about how autonomous technologies work and to see what working as an engineer is like on a day-to-day basis. As someone who has previously spent a great deal of time advocating for women in STEM (e.g. Canada’s national public broadcaster:, this was very important to me. In a similar vein, it is my hope that my work on this project will encourage other young female leaders or science enthusiasts to follow their dreams and pursue daring projects of their choosing.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 [optional] Which of the following categories do you identify with?

  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani) (9)

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 [optional] Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities?

  • Communities of color

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media


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Photo of Ariyan Miller

Hey There Fellow Changemaker,

Congrats on moving to the next phase. I wishing you the best of luck ! & I am sending love and light to all the positive things that you do.

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