Electronic Assistive Technology

Electronic Assistive Technology

The move from gas to electrically powered prostheses and the introduction of electrically powered wheelchairs meant that electronics and control technology has been at the heart of much of what bioengineering does in Edinburgh for many decades.

In the mid-1980s, research funds were secured to develop interfaces for tetraplegic patients to access microcomputers with around 15 patients trialling five different input devices. During the late 1980s, the Control Interface Service was formally set up to primarily provide special controls, e.g. single switch, for powered wheelchairs, as well as individually adapted mounts for remote joysticks, controllers, switches and communication aids.

In the late 1980s bioengineering, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh’s Communication, Access, Literacy and Learning (CALL) Centre, developed and trialled the ‘Smart Wheelchair’. This had sensors mounted in front and rear bumpers to give children who could not control a conventional powered wheelchair the educational experience of independent mobility. It went on to be further developed by the CALL Centre and was subsequently commercialised and is still available from Smile Rehab Limited (Newbury).

In the late 1990s the service became involved with powering ventilators from wheelchair batteries and manufacturing mounts to carry the ventilators. This was a direct result of smaller ventilators being available through the Edinburgh-based home ventilation service. Newer, more energy efficient ventilators and better battery technology means that it is no longer necessary to power ventilators from wheelchair batteries, though there is still a need for providing suitable mounts.

Environmental control systems enable very severely disabled people to control electrical equipment such as alarms, telephones, door intercoms and home entertainment equipment. Up until 1997, environmental control systems were funded separately and installed and maintained by commercial contractors. In 1999, Bioengineering took on the installation and maintenance of environmental control systems and since that date all new installations in the Lothian area have been fully fitted and maintained by the in-house team. The resulting savings has allowed many more systems to be provided and currently, there are about 96 environmental control installations in the area. Where appropriate the service also integrates environmental controls with wheelchair controls to enable both to be operated via the same switch or hand joystick.

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Selected Further Reading

Creasey GH, Workman DS, Geggie C.
High level tetraplegics: alternative input devices allowing access to microcomputers.
Proc. International Medical Society of Paraplegia, Annual Conference, Stoke Mandeville, U.K., May 1987.

Workman D, Geggie C, Creasey G.
The microcomputer as an aid to written communication.
British Journal of Occupational Therapy 1988;51(6):188-90.

Geggie C, Clark S.
Environmental control for communication aid users.
Communication Matters 2002;16(2):6-10.

Geggie C.
Integrated powered wheelchair control systems.
Scottish Seating and Wheelchair Group Meeting, Stirling, 26/11/03.

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Written & compiled by Dr Michael J Dolan, SMART Centre, NHS Lothian, Edinburgh.

First published 15th March 2013. Last updated 24th June 2014. Version 1.1.