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UBC student uses engineering skills — and YouTube videos — to invent special wheelchair for brother

WATCH: A UBC student has put his education to a very personal use, designing a new system that allows his special needs brother to control his wheelchair. Linda Aylesworth reports.

Michael Ko has always looked up to his older brother Daniel.

“The earliest childhood memory that I have, it’s just building Lego blocks with my brother, and I think that kind of gave me inspiration to build things later on in my life,” Ko said.

Daniel may have seemed invincible in the eyes of his younger brother, but he slowly began losing the use of his muscles due to Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

“The first muscles that deteriorated the most were his legs muscles, so he needed the wheelchair by the age of eight,” Ko said.

READ MORE: WATCH: 4-year-old boy with degenerative condition gets wish for train fulfilled

About three years ago, Daniel had a cardiac arrest because of his deteriorating muscles. Since then he hasn’t been able to use his arms. His vocal cords sustained serious damage following an operation, affecting his ability to speak.

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Daniel had been able to use voice-activated devices like Google Assistant, but his speech difficulties meant the device could no longer understand him.

Grace, Daniel and Michael Ko (Credit: UBC)
Grace, Daniel and Michael Ko (Credit: UBC)

Ko, who is enrolled in UBC’s engineering physics program, turned his attention to building technology that could change Daniel’s life.

He taught himself basic programming and electrical engineering, largely through watching YouTube videos.

He developed an artificial intelligence system that would allow Daniel, whose speech has been reduced to syllables, to activate Google Assistant with a simpler vocal command.

Ko says this past summer Daniel was “having a much harder time” as his physical abilities continued to deteriorate.

READ MORE: UBC engineering students make rescue robots for grades and glory

Ko combined all of his knowledge to design a controller for Daniel’s wheelchair that could respond to simple vocal commands.

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“I wanted to really do something for my brother,” he said, “and so I built on top of this AI a mechanical device with electrical connections that could keep control my brother’s wheelchair, and that’s what we have today.”

As far as Ko knows, Daniel’s personalized voice-controlled wheelchair is one of a kind.

“It really feels amazing because my brother means the world to me,” he said.