The Toyota Mobility Foundation announced the five finalists in its Mobility Unlimited Challenge at January’s Consumer Electric Show, held in Las Vegas. The three-year-long challenge kicked off last year when engineers, innovators and designers from around the world were invited to submit their ideas for products designed to improve the lives of people with lower-limb paralysis. Eighty entries were received from teams in 28 nations, and the judges themselves were drawn from seven countries.
Making the final five are an AI-enhanced manual wheelchair that knows when to assist braking and propulsion, two variations of exoskeletons, a fleet of power assist devices for rent à la urban bike-sharing and a refined FES sleeve to ameliorate foot drop. Each has received $500,000 from the Toyota Mobility Foundation and Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre to keep developing their entries. The final winner will be awarded $1 million and will be announced at the September 2020 Paralympics Games in Tokyo.
Two of the 11 judges are wheelchair users, including United Kingdom journalist Sophie Morgan, 32, a T5 para since she was 18. “At the moment, if you have lower-limb paralysis, you mobilize with a wheelchair — and that isn’t necessarily the best way for people like me to be able to get around,” says Morgan. Her wheelchair-replacing dream device would be “a robotic exoskeleton that I could wear underneath my clothes and control through thought. I’d be able to walk around amongst people and they’d never even know that I am paralyzed!” Her perspective may help explain why two exoskeletons made the finalist cut, while only one wheelchair did.
Here are the finalists:
Phoenix Ai Ultralight Wheelchair by Phoenix Instinct
Designed by Andrew Slorance, the brains behind both the Unstoppable luggage system and the Carbon Black wheelchair, this new offering melds smart technologies with a sleek ultralight manual wheelchair.
What does that actually mean? The chair has smart sensors installed that shape its functionalities to what the user is doing. So if you lean forward or backward, the chair recognizes the motion and responds appropriately. Slorance says this smooths the ride, eliminates drag and prevents tipping. It detects whether you’re going up or down a hill and adjusts braking so you don’t backslide or reach the bottom faster than you’d like.
“When a user is going downhill, they’ll no longer have to grip onto the pushrims for dear life,” says Slorance, a para based in the U.K. “You can decide to either use it intelligently or use it manually, so the user could decide how much braking they want to apply, or they could let the chair decide for them how much braking they want to apply on that slope.”
The final product will weigh around 18 pounds, including an integrated power assist, and will be a custom build. In response to NEW MOBILITY Facebook followers concerned the back is too low to be practical, Slorance reassures, “The backrest will be available in different heights, and there will be an option for an after-market backrest too. We are very aware of the need for users to be able to use their preferred pressure relief cushions, and the seat will be designed to accommodate this.”
Moby by Italdesign
Moby is the cycle share equivalent for lightweight manual wheelchair users, says Italdesign. When it’s up and running, you will be able to book a Moby power assist device via an app, make your way to a hub located in the major city of your choice, click into it, and enjoy being powered until you’re ready to turn it in at the closest hub to your destination. Italdesign also says it’s “a semi-autonomous electric device with integrated systems that help users to avoid any collisions with fixed or mobile obstacles and it is designed to help them to easily overcome architectural barriers,” like when you drive a newer vehicle too close to the line in the middle of the road and it gives off a warning beep.
The app will have some of the features of Waze, allowing the customer to connect with other means of transportation that may be available and with other wheelchair users as well.
“Moby is an idea we’ve been working on for quite some time, creating a close-knit project team with wheelchair users,” says Moby Project Manager Serena De Mori. “Their main request was to make their daily traveling easier and physically less demanding. We are looking forward to bringing this concept to reality and working with users to improve it over time.” And that’s not even getting into all the ways a service like this could boost the growing accessible travel industry.
Qolo by Team Qolo, University of Tsukuba
The Qolo is an exoskeleton/wheelchair hybrid. Leaning forward engages actuators to move you from sitting to standing, and while standing the Qolo can bump over obstacles a little under an inch tall and handle slopes up to 10 percent steep. An actuator is the part of a machine that makes it move.
You don’t need a joystick to steer Qolo, but rather you lean in the direction you’d like to travel. That’s both one of the coolest features, and also one of the most disappointing, as it means only people with trunk control can use the Qolo as it’s currently designed. Also, there doesn’t seem to be space for a decent wheelchair cushion.
“We want to remove the chair from ‘wheelchair,’” says Team Qolo’s Kenji Suzuki. “Our device gives users the choice to sit or stand, using cutting edge technologies.” The streamlined Qolo is a jump forward in terms of how intuitive it is to use, plus those large front wheels add stability. Hopefully the final version will be usable by more than just people with trunk function … and build in some space for an appropriate seat cushion.
Quix by IHMC and MYOLYN
We’ve seen exoskeletons before, but this one is a finalist in a contest for innovators. What sets it apart from those already on the market? For starters, it has more tech built in than other versions. In theory this will allow the suit’s wearer to move more naturally.
“Quix will have actuation, sensing and controls that the existing, including our current Mina v2 prototype, exoskeletons do not have,” says IHMC’s Peter Neuhaus. It offers four actuators per leg. One is located where the leg moves sideways from the hip, one where the hip moves the leg forward, one at the knee and one at the ankle. This will allow customers to side step as well as walk forward.
Also, it’s designed for the user to be able to tell where their feet are — and that’s a big deal. “As for sensing, we will have sensors under the feet that sense the magnitude and location of the ground reaction force,” says Neuhaus. “Basically, how much load is on the foot, and is it toward the toes, heel, or in the center?” Another sensor will be continually examining upcoming terrain to check for obstacles that may need to be stepped over, onto or around, and, “finally, we plan to add assistive balance control to help the user stay balanced without the need for crutches.”
The rendered images show a person walking without crutches, but even with the extra sensors, that idea seems far-fetched. “This is a very ambitious goal, and might not be possible technically, or possible for all users,” Neuhaus acknowledges. “At a minimum, the Quix should reduce the crutch force and reduce the frequency that the user needs to put the crutch on the ground for balance assistance.”
If all goes as planned, once Quix hits the consumer market it will be priced in the same range as high-end power chairs.
Evowalk by Evolution Devices
People with foot drop caused by multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke and other nervous system conditions, this one’s for you. The Evowalk is an FES sleeve similar to the FES battery packs we’ve seen strapped to people’s calves that make it easier for them to walk more smoothly and farther. The difference, we’re told, is Evowalk is sleeker, less obtrusive and more customized.
“Our main advantage is that we use an artificial intelligence algorithm to train our device on each individual user’s walking patterns in order to personalize stimulation,” says Evolution Devices spokesperson Juan Rodriguez. “This leads to improved comfort and better outcomes.”
These innovations could mean the user’s leg does not need to swing out quite so wide to compensate for foot drop. This in turn means less energy expended, which could translate into a longer distance traversed or another activity enjoyed. For people with MS who have fatigue issues, any edge is appreciated. And it’s nice that, for once, how a product for people with MS looks and feels is considered as important as its functionality.