Power (Assist) to the People

The e.motion is the only power assist system currently available in the United States.

The e.motion is the only power assist system currently available in the United States.

Once, the only choices aching wheelers had–to cope with sore shoulders and wrists, neck and back pain–were to grit their teeth and push, ask for help or switch to a power chair. Now, thanks to original systems being offered by a few pioneering companies, there’s a way for chair users to keep on wheeling–or for power chair users to add in wheeling–and still have dependable help whenever they need it. Fittingly, it’s called power assist.

First introduced in Japan by Yamaha and brought to Europe in the mid-’90s, the concept uses a combination of programmable software and lightweight batteries and motors to give a power boost whenever you push on wheel rims.

Robin Smith, president of Miami Physical Therapy Associates, first saw this system on an overseas trip. When he found out a year ago that a similar concept, developed in Germany, had passed FDA and was now being marketed in the United States as Frank Mobility’s e.motion, he immediately signed up as a dealer.

“I said, ‘Wow!’ as soon as I saw it,” says Smith, who’s been working with wheelchair users for over 25 years since his days running the PT unit at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. “It’s a quantum leap in wheelchair technology. It makes the manual wheelchair a much more functional alternative.”

While not quite as enthusiastic as Smith, Tim Werner, supervisor of therapy at the Miami VA’s spinal cord unit, agrees that it’s a good idea. “The idea behind it is to create a stepping stone” between manual and power chairs.

Jim Knaub, a T12 para and vice president of sales and marketing at Delta Glide, the third company to develop a power assist, characterizes the system in more definitive terms: “Power assist turns a quad into a para.”

Testimonials from both para and quad users of all three systems–e.motion, DeltaGlide and Yamaha–leave no doubt that power assist technology is a welcome development.

Frank Mobility’s e.motion
Frank Mobility Systems (888/426-8581; www.frankmobility.com) offers the only product of the three–so far–to have received FDA approval for marketing in the United States. Its e.motion system is also the only one that’s self-contained–motors, batteries and software–within a wheel. This makes for a hefty package–26.5 pounds per wheel, 53 pounds of added weight in all.

Although some users may find it a chore getting the wheels in their cars, most e.motion users do not consider it a problem, considering the power the wheels provide. Programmable to provide from 40 percent to 100 percent of the energy necessary to move the chair, the e.motion’s direct drive motors engage almost seamlessly as soon as the chair user pushes on the wheel’s rims. Once contact stops, so do the motors. If the user pushes in reverse, the motors do likewise.

T10 Para Steve Carner, 70–yes, 70!–says, “It’s a fabulous product.” He’d been using a manual wheelchair since his injury in 1999 and blew out a rotator cuff last year. “The wheels beat surgery six ways from Sunday. You feel good about using them,” he says.

Before getting his e.motions, Zarko Kullsic, a fairly new C6 quad–10 months–was dependent on family and friends. “Until I got my e.motion wheels,” he says, “I couldn’t push myself. Now I can.”

Initially Frank Mobility shipped the wheels with three settings–low, medium and high–but few wheelers used the low setting. Now the wheels come with preset power assist choices of 50 percent and 80 percent, and users can change these settings at will. When the going’s “easy,” the lower setting works fine. To climb a steep ramp or wheel across a lawn, a simple tap on a button mounted on the wheel mechanism boosts the power assist to the higher setting.

Jeff Shafner, 53, a C7 quad, rarely uses his high setting. Ever since being injured in a waterskiing accident in 1988, he has used a manual chair. He switched to e.motion last year because of recurring shoulder pain. Shafner, who frequently pilots his own plane for Challenge Air, an organization that provides flying experiences and special transportation for children and young adults with disabilities, likes the way his e.motions help him manage his energy: “They serve a really useful purpose. I find I’m exerting a lot less effort. The other day I had to go up a steep ramp. I never would have been able to get up it without power assist wheels.”

Sold in pairs, e.motion wheels look like ordinary spoked wheelchair wheels with a large drum–10-inch diameter–in the middle. Decorative spoke covers are available from the manufacturer, as are flat-free inserts for the cautious, and coated handrims for quad pushers.

Extra sets of batteries are also available. A backup set is a good idea since the range is about eight miles, no match for the charge life or power of the average power chair. But of the 18 e.motions placed in South Florida by Smith and Werner, only one has been returned by a user unhappy with the wheels’ range.

Estate jeweler Deborah Mellen, a T10 para, has been in a manual chair since an automobile accident 11 years ago. She carries a spare set of batteries but has had no occasion to use them. She turned to the e.motions last year after surgery left her with recurring backaches. “It was great, what I needed,” she says. “I find I can push all over New York City. I can even get around on grass.”

Converting most manual chairs is easy, requiring only the installation of small brackets. Because the wheels have an easy release feature, it’s a simple process to interchange power assists with regular wheels. Cost, however, is another matter. At $6,000 a set, the wheels could be too pricey for those not covered by insurance or the VA. The system is scheduled to come up within the next year for review by Medicaid and Medicare. If the weight of positive testimony from users is recognized, the e.motion system should be approved.

DeltaGlide
DeltaGlide (203/230-0301; www.deltaglide.com) expects to begin marketing their power assist product, with FDA approval, near the end of this year. Developed and manufactured in the United States, this product takes a completely different approach than either the e.motion or Yamaha, offering a rigid wheelchair combined with motor, batteries, gearbox and software mounted under the chair, not on the wheels.

According to Knaub, sophisticated software is at the heart of the system. Rather than the user choosing an amount of power assist depending on the terrain, the DeltaGlide system’s torque sensor reads the resistance of the terrain and delivers the power necessary to keep the user pushing at a consistent level of effort. The amount of effort and speed is determined by choice from a number of settings. Unlike the others, the DeltaGlide system also slows down automatically on downhill inclines, allowing users to actually push down. “We think that’s true power assist,” Knaub says. “Not only that, but it does more and costs less.”

Actually, the DeltaGlide system, chair and all, is scheduled to cost about the same as the e.motion wheels, but there are other differences. DeltaGlide’s complete chair manages to weigh in at a few pounds less than the e.motion system and uses traditional quick release wheels, which–the company claims–are easier to take off and less cumbersome.

Instead of using Nicad rechargeable batteries, as e.motion does, the DeltaGlide comes with the more advanced technology of Nimh rechargeables. Plans are to upgrade to lithium technology in the future. Because the chair doesn’t need the added inches of e.motion’s wheel-mounted system, the DeltaGlide can rightly claim to take up less width.

Rob Sarofeen, a C6 quad who pushes a manual chair, has tested the DeltaGlide. “There are … times that I have to struggle up steep grades or against a stiff wind. With this new power assist chair, I think those struggles are a thing of the past.”

Yamaha and Future Systems
John Beauregard, patient liaison at the Miami Project, a C7 quad who’s been pushing a manual chair since his construction accident 17 years ago, turned to power assist two years ago when he began experiencing shoulder pain. He was able to obtain a pair of Yamaha wheels through friends in Europe.

“When I put my chair together and went down the walk, my body relaxed and said, ‘Thank you John.’ And,” he adds, “I didn’t lose any exercise, I just gained miles.” The Yamaha system–the grande dame of power assists–is marketed by Meyra in Europe and sold as Servomatic wheels. Currently unavailable in the United States, the system consists of a battery pack mounted on the bottom rear of a manual chair and motors mounted in the center of the wheels, with a single setting.

“It’s a shame nobody’s picked them up here yet,” Beauragard says. “They’re quiet, amazingly dependable. I have a friend who’s been using them in Europe since 1996 without a problem.”

Beauragard is one of a few wheelchair users who’ve had the opportunity to try all three systems. How does he compare them?

“The Yamaha’s good but they haven’t done anything to improve the system since it came out. The e.motions are heavy.” He also feels that e.motion’s batteries could be improved. “Otherwise,” he says, “they’re awesome. I love their quietness and I like how they handle.”

He likes DeltaGlide’s “clean package,” which he credits to their learning from the competition’s earlier designs. “They have the most unobtrusive system, the best software, a million different settings.”

As with most wheelchair products, personal choices are often influenced by one’s personal circumstances. Each system will attract its own market, and soon there will be even more choices.

TiSport (800/545-2266; www.tisport.net) is introducing its own line of power assist chairs. All models will feature the same exact wheel system as the e.motion coupled with wheelchairs that have been beefed up to handle stresses brought on by motor power.

Electrical specialty manufacturer Zap (800/251-4555; www.zapworld.com) has been working on developing a motorized fifth wheel that mounts under the chair and provides extra power with a push on the handrims. Far less advanced than other systems, it is scheduled to sell at a fraction of the competition’s prices.

Also less expensive and non-electric, Seattle-based Magic Wheels (206/285-2311; www.magicwheels.net) plans to introduce the world’s first two-speed geared wheels. Designed to make hill climbing a far easier experience, the wheels also provide easy braking on descent.

My Take on Power Assist
So what does an overweight, out of shape, C6 quad–me–think of power assist? When I was going through rehab, I used to watch the paras zoom by me and wish I could, just for a day, push like one of them. Thanks to Frank Mobility’s loan of an e.motion system, I finally had that day. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun with any wheeled device since my first ride on a 12-speed racing bike.

The first thing that amazed me was how seamlessly the wheels’ machinery matched my pushing and how effortless it was. A light touch forward and off I went. Likewise in reverse. Turning? I could spin on a dime. And there was no motor hum, no mechanical noise at all.

Leaving the setting on low–50 percent–my wife and I set out for a local breakfast spot, over a mile and a half from my house. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have been able to push more than a block or two, but with power assist, I pushed the whole way, had breakfast and pushed back–a 3.2 mile trip! Along the way I coped with walkways that sloped left, tilted right, angled up and angled down, and I handled them all without straining. I did get tired enough, though, to switch to the high setting for the final quarter of the push.

Of course everything wasn’t perfect. The e.motion wheels made my wheelchair too wide to fit on my van lift. My 3.2-mile trip almost maxed out the batteries’ range, and the controls mounted on the side of the wheels were a little bit too challenging for a C6 quad like me to easily push and operate–especially on inclines.

Am I interested in a power assist system? You bet! Which one will I choose? I’m not sure yet. But I know this: power assist systems are in the infancy of a wheelchair technology revolution, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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