Monday, December 15, 2014


I use a motorised wheelchair, a powerchair, so the evolution of technology in that field always interests me. Sadly, there has not been much to get excited about in the last 20 years!  As incredible as that sounds considering the amazing technological advances that we've experienced during this time it is unfortunately true. Powerchairs live in the technology world's equivalent of the Dark Ages!

In the last two decades we have seen materials such as aircraft grade aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre move from exclusive high technology domains into mainstream construction, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs. We have witnessed revolutionary developments in battery technology, most notably lithium power, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs. We have seen enormous strides being made in the design and construction of office chairs and car seating for children, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs. We have seen large scale commodisation of components, leading to a tremendous reduction in their purchase prices, yet they haven't made it into powerchairs.

As if living in a parallel universe, the powerchair industry appears to have completely missed these advances, and continues to release new models incorporating such space age components as plastic side covers, drinks holders and six wheels instead of four! The mind boggles!

What we have experienced is the development of often bizarre and unfathomable devices such as Johnson & Johnson's iBot which was set to revolutionise the mobility industry, but was effectively sunk by the ogre of potential litigation before it was even launched. The fact that it called for a purchase price of $25 000 (R265 000) nearly 15 years ago did not help matters, neither did its ability to instantly destroy household carpets when turning indoors!

Every couple of months it seems that a university somewhere around the world sponsors a research project into the development of a “new wheelchair”. Most recently a university in the UK started a project to develop an “integrated multifunctional chair”, or more simply put, the wheelchair which can be converted from a sports chair to an everyday chair with a couple of adjustments. Now I guess we all would like some sort of “transformer” wheelchair which can become different things at different times at the press of a button, but reality needs to step in, and after all we are talking about university, not a children's playground.

Even after it was pointed out to the researchers that sports chairs, even the entry-level models, are very specialised items which are generally completely inappropriate for everyday life. Anyone who has ever seen or used a track chair, or basketball chair, or a tennis chair will testify that any resemblance to a day chair is marginal. The fact that the researchers were trying to incorporate some form of motorised power into their design makes it even more improbable.

Who dreams up these research projects?

What a pity they don't choose something more practical, where the findings might actually benefit someone. Each time I read of some crackpot research topic it makes me want to tear my hair out. There is so much basic work which needs to be done that there is no need for people to initiate crazy research projects. We don't need “new wheelchairs”. We don't need integrated multifunctional chairs. We don't need stair climbing chairs. We don't need exoskeletons. We just need chairs made out of modern, appropriate materials which are reliable, lightweight, and reasonably priced.

A far more sensible idea would be for the industry to build a standard rear wheel drive motorised wheelchair using off-the-shelf stock components readily available from engineering retailers. They should use only corrosion resistant materials such as stainless steel or aluminium not only to lighten the weight but also to prevent the rust and corrosion of components in wet and humid climates. All of the components should be assembled using only Allen-key bolts, in no more than three different sizes, enabling the user to effectively have a maintenance kit in one hand. The motors should be powered by lithium batteries which will provide an exponentially longer range while also significantly reducing the weight. The powerchair should be controlled via a (and this is the important part) "programmable" joystick to enable the user to customise its handling characteristics to their disability limitations.

Sounds quite simple doesn't it? 
Not enough of a gee-wiz factor.
Strange thing is, nobody had done it yet!

Now for the challenging bit..... Given the number of powerchairs constructed by the major manufacturers around the world (in excess of six figures every year), and their collective buying power with regard to the purchase of components it would be fascinating to make public the actual cost of such a chair. I would be surprised if it even came to a quarter of what we currently pay today (including labour). Perhaps that is why the university research projects don't ask the students to try and construct a standard, but better, powerchair since it would be rather embarrassing when they manage to do so for a fraction of the price.