The classic wheelchair is one of the most basic — and for many, most essential — machines ever invented. By adding wheels to a seat, inventors gave injured people mobility, which translates into freedom and quality of life.
Things can always be improved, however. For centuries, improvements came in the form of design and materials advancements. The advent of the bicycle brought inflatable tires and wheels with spokes to wheelchair design in the late 1800s. Tubular steel frames, brakes, and push rims followed, and later, new materials like breathable mesh seats and lightweight titanium frames made wheelchairs more comfortable, stylish, and nimble than ever before. Not every person can self-propel a wheelchair, however. The requirements of people with quadriplegia and higher-level spinal cord injuries, progressive conditions like ALS, or shoulder-joint wear from a lifetime of wheelchair use inspired designers to create motorized and electric wheelchairs.
The first electric-powered wheelchair was created by George Klein when he worked as an engineer and designer at the National Research Council of Canada. Returning WWII veterans were the first to use the “Klein Chair,” which went into mass production in 1956. Electric or power chairs have evolved over the decades, and today’s standard models come in a variety of drive configurations, are powered by rechargeable 12A to 80A rechargeable deep-cycle batteries, and include a joystick-style arm-rest-mounted controller. Today, these classic power chairs are experiencing a revolution, propelled by advancements in technology.
A Revolutionary Wheelchair
In 2003, Dean Kamen introduced the iBOT, a high-tech wheelchair that not only could handle all terrains, including stairs, sand, and water, but also give its users a new perspective by raising to an upright, standing position. Like his Segway personal transporter design, the iBot used tilt sensors and gyroscopes to balance, enabling the chair to climb stairs and curbs. Robotics allowed the chair to switch between sitting and standing configurations.
The iBot was life-changing for users like Shannon Thomas. “Being injured at the age of eight meant that I never experienced life from a typical adult level. Socializing with a group of standing adults when you are the only one sitting is both physically and emotionally challenging. Being at the same level is easier on my neck, easier to hear what is being said, and I don’t feel left out of the conversation like I so often do when I’m butt level,” she said. “The balance function alone made the iBOT one of the best experiences of my entire life. I felt more ‘normal’ than I had ever felt since being injured. The 4WD capability was awesome for the beach and going over grass and gravel. The iBOT took me places I could never go otherwise.”
In 2009, the iBOT went out of production, and in 2013, Independence Technology stopped supporting existing units. Thomas’s iBOT is now in a closet. “It was pretty devastating [when the iBOT stopped working]. It was almost like being injured all over again. Honestly, the loss was more devastating than I ever let even myself admit.”
Today, Toyota is reportedly at work on a comeback model. In the meantime, numerous startups are taking their cues from Kamen, and researchers are developing the next generation of electric wheelchairs. These chairs will join the Internet of Things with include Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, advanced robotics, and technologies we are seeing in the autonomous, electric car market, including LiDAR and fast-charging capabilities. For millions of people, these advancements can’t come soon enough. The global electric wheelchair market is expected to reach a market size of $4.9 billion by 2020, and is growing at an estimated CAGR of 19.6%.
Cool New Wheels
When Toyota’s iBot reboot does arrive, it’ll have some stiff competition. Here are a few cool new wheels that are coming to the market. Whill’s Personal Electric Vehicles give their users a rare level of maneuverability, a tight turning radius, and all-terrain capabilities. The Whill models have a dual-drive system, electromagnetic braking, three speeds, and a system of 24 multidirectional rollers. Two 12V 50Ah batteries provides a range of 15 miles. The user can link their chair to an iPhone app. It looks cool, too. Recent FDA approval of lithium ion batteries on airlines makes folding chairs like Whill’s Pride Go-Go Folding 4-Wheel Travel Scooter an option for disabled travelers. Another high-design option is the Ogo. This one looks cool too, and features USB ports for charging a phone, three different steering options, built-in lights, automatic stabilizing feet, and can go 25 miles on a single charge. It is designed around a self-balancing platform that makes it impossible to tip over. The Airwheel folding electric wheelchair also interfaces with an app, sending the user information about speed, distance,and battery power. In the scooter category, the EWheels Ew-52 Scooter can reach speeds up to 15 mph with a 45-mile range, plus cruise control, a three-speaker stereo system, and alarm system.
Some of the most interesting wheelchairs are still in development. MIT researchers are taking a cue from autonomous cars to develop a self-propelled wheelchair with LiDAR. At Northwestern, researchers are using AI and sensors to design a robotic chair. A new wheelchair coming out Kurume Institute of Technology is voice-controlled.
This generation of electric wheelchairs contains significant connector content. Lighting, sounds, connectivity, robotics, motors, and battery and charging systems are just a few of the systems that depend on interconnect products. They must also be able to withstand UV rays, dirt or mud, moisture, and other environmental conditions. Many of the components are adapted from automotive, mil-spec, and industrial arenas, while others are designed specifically for use in medical and adaptive technology. AerosUSA is one company that designs lightweight, flexible, impact-resistant cable protection systems and have an IP66 or IP68 ingress protection rating.
George Sims, Director of Marketing/Engineering at Aeros, says the company also makes conduits from UL 94VO materials with the addition of flammability modifiers to give them the highest flammability ratings possible. User safety is the chief concern when developing interconnect products for wheelchairs. The ultimate goal is to integrate electronics into functional designs that give disabled people greater freedom and comfort than ever before.