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A Revolution In Wheelchair Design


A British team of wheelchair innovators, Phoenix Instinct from the UK, has won the Toyota Mobility Foundation’s prestigious Mobility Unlimited Challenge. Having won a considerable amount of $1 million as the reward, they aim to develop their revolutionary ultra-light carbon fiber wheelchair further, introduce it to the market, and transform millions of lives belonging to the disabled community for the greater good.

Established by Toyota in 2014, the Toyota Mobility Foundation, in partnership with Nesta Challenges, launched this global Challenge with a cash prize of $4 million in 2017 to push innovative ideas in the field of assistive technology for people who have lower-limb paralysis. This was to demonstrate Toyota’s mission of Mobility for All and furthering the vision of happiness for all.

Calling all the talented engineers, designers, and innovators from around the world to submit their ideas and designs for groundbreaking devices, which were at par with the latest technologies, to improve the mobility and independence of the users, the Challenge proved to be quite motivating. More than 80 teams from 28 countries participated.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) led the entries’ assessments and simultaneously provided mentorship alongside a team of Toyota subject matter experts. A panel of expert judges finally chose the winner. 

Key factors that came into play while choosing the winner included those devices that would seamlessly integrate with people’s lives and would be comfortable and easy to use. This would, in turn, allow greater independence and increased participation in daily life. Other factors also included innovation, insight, functionality, impact, usability, quality, and safety while keeping in mind the market potential and affordability.

There are millions of people in this world who have lower-limb paralysis, the most common cause being spinal cord injuries, strokes, and multiple sclerosis. Even with the lack of formal records on paralysis, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 250,000-500,000 new cases of spinal cord injury globally every year.

Andrew Slorance, a member of Phoenix Instinct, is a person with disabilities and a user of the wheelchair. He won this global Mobility Unlimited Challenge. He had begun using a wheelchair 37 years ago after a spinal cord injury, resulting from his fall from a tree when he was a small 14-year-old kid. He describes his experience as devastating and also said that he felt extremely judged when he had to use his wheelchair. Andrew rightly notices that since then, not much has happened to wheelchairs other than the fact that it was made more compact; the technology, however, remained the same for nearly four decades.

The Phoenix I uses smart sensors to automatically adjust its center of gravity, thereby making the ultra-lightweight carbon fiber frame exceedingly stable and easy to maneuver. To minimize painful vibration and strain on the user, it uses a front-wheel power-assist. This chair is also capable of using an intelligent power braking system that automatically detects when the user is going downhill and adjusts accordingly to manage the descent. 

The Phoenix I is a good buy and would be produced in-house by a company based out of Forres, Moray, to keep it cost-effective. The goal is for it to cost £4,000-£5,000 and to be a part of the market in two years. Andrew knows that it is still a lot of money for a wheelchair, but given the fact that it has a lot of features that traditional wheelchairs that use 1980s technology don’t, it is a smart buy.

Finalists in the competition: 

  • The Evowalk: Evolution Devices (United States)

This wheelchair consists of a smart wearable simulator that goes right beneath the knee. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) that supports the muscles when needed and helps in rehabilitating, walking, and prevents falls for people with foot drop.

  • Qolo (Quality of Life with Locomotion): Team Qolo, University of Tsukuba (Japan)

The wheelchair designed by this team has a standing mobility device that integrates exoskeleton and wheelchair functions. It also assists the user while standing and sitting with a unique passive assist mechanism for people with lower-limb paralysis.

  • Quix: IHMC & MYOLYN (United States)

This wheelchair has a highly mobile and powered exoskeleton that offers agile, stable, and fast upright mobility.

  • Wheem-i: Italdesign (Italy)

This wheelchair is a wheel-on semi-autonomous electric device with features like ride-sharing for all wheelchair users. Primarily, it was designed to provide micro-mobility and was usable on a variety of surfaces. 

Andrew mentions that winning this competition was quite an incredible achievement for Phoenix Instinct members and all wheelchair users in general. The wheelchair has remained unchanged and traditional since time immemorial. He states that the funding they received through the Challenge allowed them to prove that smart technology makes everything easier and safer, including a wheelchair. 

With the money they won, he plans on adding a suite of new features and advanced options to the Phoenix I before bringing it to the consumer. He also adds that it is a very exciting time for them, as Toyota moves into the mobility sector and promises that consumers are bound to notice significant changes. For the time being, they are happy to be the leaders of the smart wheelchair revolution.

At its core, the Challenge was designed to draw attention to the importance of collaboration with users and come up with interesting inventions, keeping people with disabilities in mind. It supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, especially one that states, reducing inequalities in supporting devices that give people with paralysis better access to society for economic, educational, social, and other opportunities. 


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