CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — A U of I professor is working on something big for people with disabilities. She’s creating a hands-free robotic wheelchair.

The idea is to create something that’s slim, sleek and lightweight. The pure ballbot hands-free wheelchair gives users great mobility to steer, spin and slide in their direction of choice.

Professor Elizabeth Hisao-Wecksler has been working on the project for five years. In 2020, she received $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation. She said the end goal is to give people more freedom.

“Manual wheelchair users don’t have to use their hands to propel,” Hisao-Wecksler said. “They can use them to do life experiences like holding hands, carrying a cup of coffee, holding a child, hold your groceries, pulling things out of the oven.”

Hsiao-Wecksler said the idea for the ballbot came from one iconic movie franchise, Star Wars.

“Back in 2018, the Star Wars movie, The Force Awakening had just come out and BB8, the robot, was there,”Hisao-Wecksler said. “And I learned that that was actually a real robot that operates on that ball, it wasn’t just CGI. And one of our colleagues, Tim Bretl, another professor in aerospace engineering, said there’s actually concepts for ball-based robots or ballbots.”

Ph.D. student Yu Chen has been part of the project since it started. He said it’s been a joy seeing the machine come to life.

“We actually wanted a device that is fun and enjoyable to ride,” Chen said. “Not some cumbersome device you use to get a day to day task done. We want to go beyond that.”

There’s no timeline yet for when the 2nd generation prototype will be available to the public. They’re going to start working on yet another prototype.