The TinMan Supplementary Wheelchair Controller

A quicktime movie of the latest TinMan Wheelchair guiding itself through a home environment can be downloaded by clicking here.

For some people who are mobility impaired, the safe operation of a standard power wheelchair is beyond their capabilities. This is especially true for those individuals who do not have any fine motor control or who also have partial vision loss. The TinMan supplementary wheelchair controller is being designed to allow these individuals to be able to quickly, safely and independently operate their own wheelchair and easily direct their own movements through the world.

The TinMan project consists of a series of supplemental wheelchair controllers that have been developed over the past three years. These controllers sit between a power wheelchair's input device (e.g., joystick) and the standard wheelchair motor controller. The supplementary controller, along with its sensor network, allows the chair to sense many of the obstacles in its immediate surroundings along with doorways and other openings. The TinMan controller can then safely guide the chair past those obstacles and through the desired openings with a minimum of input from the chair user.

The TinMan supplementary wheelchair controller is designed to be added to existing power wheelchairs. It has been tested with two of the industries most popular wheelchair control systems (The Dynamics and the Penny & Giles series of wheelchair controllers). The retrofit takes only a few hours and should cost only a fraction of the cost of a standard power wheelchair. Any two-motor power wheelchair that uses proportional control should be able to accept a version of the TinMan supplemental controller. The controller will not work with scooters.

The TinMan controller has gone through several prototype versions. Several chairs equipped with the TinMan supplemental controller are in use at a variety of university research laboratories. It is the goal of KIPR to work with the industry to eventually make this technology available to all individuals who have need of it.

Some of the earlier versions of the TinMan system are discussed below.

Tin Man I

Tin Man I was built by the KISS Institute and was its first foray into assistive robotics. Tin Man I is a robot wheelchair which can automate some of the navigation and steering operations which might prove difficult for someone with serious disabilities. In particular, this chair can find its way through doorways, follow hallways, and do limited amounts of dead reckoning navigation. One of the qualities that separates this wheelchair from other attempts at automated chairs is its cost. only a few hundred dollars worth of equipment was added onto a stock power chair to create Tin Man I. More details on Tin Man I and its immediate successor Tin Man II can be found in Autonomous Robots #2, pps. 77-88 (1995) by David Miller & Marc Slack. The Construction of Tin Man I was supported in part by KISS Institute, MITRE Corporation, Apple Computer, and Vector Mobility.

In case you were wondering, the wheelchair was not named Tin Man because one of KISS Institute's previous robots was named Scarecrow. Rather, this robot was named after the creature in the episode Tin Man from the TV series Star Trek the Next Generation.

Tin Man II

This was an cleaned up version of the original wheelchair which eliminated the mechanical joystick interface.


This chair was built by KISS Institute for Holly Yanco of Wellesley College. She and her students designed navigation software and a GUI for the chair. The chair was demonstrated at the 1995 IJCAI Robot Exhibition where it tied for first in the wheelchair limbo contest.

The people working on the Tin Man robots include David Miller, Marc Slack, Mike Wessler, Anne Wright, Randy Sargent, and Mark Westling.

This page is maintained by David P. Miller. Send questions or comments to E-Mail: David Miller