An electric wheelchair that is “driven” by eye movement has been unveiled by London scientists.

The device is a breakthrough in hands-free technology and could offer patients with conditions such as motor neurone disease the ability to transport themselves without assistance.

The wheelchair featured at Imperial College’s annual science festival, which took place last weekend at its South Kensington campus. Dr Aldo Faisal (left) and Kirubin Pillay are pictured above testing the wheelchair.

It was exhibited alongside a robot that uses human-style “muscles” to operate. Both exhibits highlighted the advances being made by the roboticists at Imperial in adapting technology for use in an ageing – and mobility-impaired – society.

Eye technology is able to be used to help patients with “motor” diseases or spinal injuries as the eyes are controlled by the brain not the spinal cord.

Dr Faisal, senior lecturer in neurotechnology at Imperial College, said: “A lot of people in engineering are interested in teaching computers how to look at the world like humans. What no-one does is build machines that understand what your eye movements mean.

“The biggest advance is in how much we can extract about what your intention is from the movement in your eyes. That is surprising to many people until they realise how much they use their eyes.”

Using software written by Dr Faisal and his colleagues, the wheelchair user’s eye movements are monitored by a £20 eye-tracking device and translated into instructions that are fed through to the wheelchair’s joystick control pad. The user “drives” the wheelchair by blinking. To ensure safety, the wheelchair stops moving when the user looks down.

The invention remains a “clunky” prototype but could be developed for NHS patients if funding is secured. The robotic arm could be fitted onto the wheelchair to further assist patients who are completely paralysed. Work is being done in conjunction with Hammersmith hospital, which is leading UK studies into dementia.

The robot’s “muscles” operate by using compressed air to inflate a tube. As it becomes “fatter”, it shortens and begins to “pull”. Each “muscle” can pull 70kg – the weight of an average human.

Dr Faisal said: “There are five million people in the UK who suffer from movement disorders. These are not just paralysed people. These are people who cannot easily operate an iPad. That trend is going to accelerate.

“The challenge with people ageing is that there is really a need to help people with movement-related or neurologically-related disability.”