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According to estimation, Java has been used on more than 4.5 billion devices; it is used in every industry and almost every PCs, mobile phones and other handheld devices. More than 6.5 million software developers choose to use java(Oracle, 2009). In healthcare industry, Java also appears everywhere. Disease and illness as well as aging and frailty cause immobility in many people across the world. According to the Irish Wheelchair Association there are 20,000 registered members in the Republic of Ireland, representing a significant number of wheelchair users (IWA, 2010). The powered wheelchair gives these people a lot of independence to go where they want to go when they want to go their without having to get others to help them. This independence is very important to people who must use the powered wheelchair to improve their mobility. Those wheelchair users would benefit from specially designed wheelchairs called intelligent wheelchairs which could give extra support while using. This report describes some of typical medical conditions of which caused people need to use intelligent wheelchair, which should take into consideration when design and development of intelligent wheelchairs. It also gives a brief overview of robotic technology, with emphasis on how the using of today's Java technology could benefit from the designing and customized of the intelligent wheelchair for the people needed.
The proportion of people who need physical assistance in our society is growing. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) estimates that there were 467,926 people aged 65 or over in Ireland in 2006. Many of them are suffering from chronic disease and having mobility problem (Fahey, 2007). The NIDD (the National Intellectual Disability Database) recorded 26,023 people with intellectual disabilities was registered in Ireland in 2008(Kelly et al., 2008), many of them also having physical disability which necessitate wheelchair usage. There are approximately 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK (NHS, 2004). The ability of perform day to day tasks such as shopping, socializing, and living a normal family life independently is a great challenge to most of them. Many of them experience difficulties in participate in major day to day life such as education, employment and socializing. The manual wheelchair provide no support while driving, in fact, a lot of people with disability are having difficulties, prefer not to or find it impossible to use a manual wheelchair. These result in the need for the development of intelligent wheelchair technology.
IT components of the intelligent wheelchair
The application of robotic technology has proved to be a great success in many industrial areas. It is expected to become the next generation of rehabilitation assistants for elderly and disabled people. A typical powered wheelchair with an ECU (Electronic Control Unit) could support some simple maneuver tasks such like: Forward / Backward / Accelerate / Break / Stop / turn Left / turn Right / Climb / Up / Down movement and control) While a more advanced intelligent wheelchair empowered with robotic technology could automate driving tasks as much as possible. It depends on the individual user's circumstances and needs, the intelligent wheelchairs can be customized to suit the individual user and an appropriate add-on can be integrated to keep the user safe. Where appropriate the "smart" wheelchair can be customized for the individual user and respond appropriately to the user's inputs, adapting for judder, stagger or noise in their control of the wheelchairs movement. Joystick is the most common way to control the wheelchair, Head / Jaw and Mouth / Tongue controls systems are also in common usage and proven as a control technology for the powered wheelchair (Fahey, 2007). Remote control can be used to replace/in conjunction with joystick is shown to work effectively. The Voice, Visual and Brain Control interfaces are showing promise but need further development before they become mainstream technology.
Relevance of Java over other programming languages
Over the past decade, the object-oriented programming has become well accepted and been used in all areas of applications. Since it was developed in the late 1990's, Java has become more and more popular. As an alternative programming language to C/C++, Java is a matured language now. As it outstanding from other Object Oriented Programming language, Java also has its own unique features which are outlined below:
1. Ease of Debugging. The Java language and virtual machine are designed to prohibit or protect against common software problems such as un-initialized variables, null pointers, wild pointers, casting errors, out-of-bounds array indexes, and stack overflows. Many problems that would otherwise be difficult to debug are caught by the compiler or the virtual machine. A problem caught by the virtual machine generates an exception when it occurs and includes a stack trace pinpointing the source file and line number where the problem occurred. System crashes are virtually eliminated with Java software.
2. Built-in Operating System Features. The Java language and virtual machine standardize many operating system functions such as multi-threading, thread synchronization and memory management.
3. Software Libraries. The Java specifications standardize the format of compiled Java programs (class files), eliminating the need to share source or header files or require a specific compiler when sharing software. As a result, you can easily use libraries developed by others, such as the RoboJDE class library, and others can easily use software you develop. In addition, the Java language provides a mechanism, called Javadoc, for generating comprehensive programming interface documentation in a standard format that can be viewed using a Web browser.
Suitability of Java over other programming languages
A major advantage of using Java in designing intelligent wheelchairs technology is the availability of APIs (Application Program Interface). Sun Microsystems has already provides a number of useful tools for free which are unavailable in C/C++. In the meantime, many research institutions, companies, and even individuals distribute miscellaneous APIs with or without charge. The object oriented feature of Java technology makes the software easy to understand and debug. The designers will be able to make use of the building blocks in the RoboJDE class library, and also will be able to share the components they develop with other developers. When the software developers are working as a team, they can break the software into components that team members can develop and test independently.
Although there is no exact figure to show the development time and cost of designing and customizing intelligent wheelchairs technology for people with intellectual disabilities. Ritter emphasizes it is relatively cheap to use Java technology to handle the tasks, for example, a robotics speech synthesis java engines are available for approximately $30, webcams can be purchased for under a $100, and the LEGO Mindstorms robot can be purchased for approximately $200 (Meloan, 2003)!
There is extensive literature reporting successful implementation of Java technology to design robotic devices including intelligent wheelchairs. Ono et al (2004) build a mobile robot for corridor navigation, which was designed as a test bed for future development of intelligent wheelchairs, the component layer of the program was implemented using Java technology, which made the system independent of operating platform and hardware device. In this project, several useful APIs are used in the control program. For example, the fuzzy collision detection agent uses the NRC FuzzyJ Toolkit freely distributed by the National Research Council of Canada. This fuzzy toolkit API provides the capability of handling fuzzy concepts and reasoning. The use of these APIs maintains system compatibility. Ren and Karimi(2009) introduced a novel wheelchair navigation system written in JAVA in an open source GIS tool called Geotools. Ronnback et al (2005) demonstrate another good example of applying java technology in designing intelligent wheelchairs, the software is mainly written in java, which make it is possible to run as a stand alone program on the computers that have java installed.
Many of the intelligent wheelchairs control software in the past were hardware specific due to the uniqueness of the hardware, operating systems limits, and specification of the development systems. Java has a distinctive strength in the use of designing intelligent wheelchair technology. The platform independence, one of the most attractive features of Java, allows the control software to operate on various computer platforms and operating systems with minor modifications. A well designed Java-based control software can effectively resolve problems in real-time.
We could see more and more software developers will choose to use Java when designing software for intelligent wheelchair technology in the future.
Each wheelchair user must be treated as unique individual, with their various medical conditions and limited abilities. The intelligent wheelchairs should be customized to suit the individual user and appropriate add-on should be integrated to keep the user safe, depending to their circumstances and needs. The features of Java, multi platform, portable, well established, decent performance, dynamically adjustable to the hardware, lesser complexity to developers, support for object orientation, user interfaces, and others, have enormous advantages in building and developing a intelligent wheelchair control software.
Developing the customized intelligent wheelchairs for people with disability can increase their independency and mobility, allowing those previously confined to bed or carer dependent have a better quality of life.