Updated: December 22, 2020 03:20 PM
Created: December 22, 2020 03:16 PM
(NBC News) For decades, motorized wheelchairs have given people with mobility issues a degree of freedom and independence, but they can be dangerous.
Power wheelchairs often weigh hundreds of pounds, and can easily tip over.
Now, thanks to a star in the country music industry, wheelchair technology is moving into the 21st century.
Nashville songwriter Barry Dean's daughter Katherine was born prematurely and weighed less than two pounds.
Because of cerebral palsy, she’s spent most of her life in a power wheelchair.
Barry quickly discovered the danger.
"At the clinic, they put her in the seat, and they hadn't calibrated the speed, and it took off down the hall and went into a wall," he recalls.
It turns out, hospitals treat thousands of power chair injuries every year.
Barry wanted to make Katherine’s chair safer.
"We didn't intend to start a company, we intended to solve a problem," he says.
He enlisted the help of his brother Jered, an engineer in Colorado.
They’ve worked over the past four years to develop a computer system with radar, cameras and sensors which can prevent collisions, stop a chair from plunging off a porch or step and even send out automatic notifications if something does go wrong.
"It keeps the world within the user's ability to react to it," Jered Dean says. "So we actually as part of our system read the user's reaction time and the vehicle drives different based on the user's ability to react to the world."
They installed the system on Katherine’s chair and named it "Luci," a nod to one of her favorite Beatles songs.
Since then they've installed Luci on people’s wheelchairs in a handful of states, making observations, adjustments and changes along the way.
Now, it’s no longer an experiment. Luci is available nationwide, and is winning attention and acclaim from magazines like Popular Science and Time.
Right now, Luci can be fitted to several brands and models of power wheelchairs.
It costs about $8,500 and is not yet covered by insurance, but Luci’s creators are hopeful insurance companies will start covering their product when they realize how much money it can save them in hospital bills for wheelchair accidents and injuries.
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