Sunday, June 07, 2015

206.2 - Good News: new wheelchair could be breakthrough

Good News: new wheelchair could be breakthrough

Some more Good News with a bit of And Another Thing, our occasional feature on cool science stuff, thrown in.

A group of 10 students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, set out to construct a robot that could climb stairs. But after meeting with a professor, the team redirected the idea from a robot that could climb stairs to a wheelchair that could.

Stairs, as I'm sure you realize, are a real barrier for folks in wheelchairs, which is why we have ramps and other wheelchair-friendly designs in our buildings and streets. But such accommodations are far from universal - there places like some train stations and even some courthouses, not to mention a great many private dwellings, which are not handicapped-accessible - and so the problem remains.

Well, these students gave themselves 10 months to design a wheelchair that could overcome that barrier - and, as you can no doubt guess from the fact this is filed here under good news, they succeeded.

The chair is modeled after a Segway system. It balances on two wheels and climbs using two toothed rubber tracks that are mounted to the bottom of the chair. From the video of its operation, it seems it would take some practice to get the hang of the stair-climbing process, and you do have to go up the stairs facing backwards - but it very clearly works.

This is not the first stair-climbing wheelchair. There was one that came out in 2003 using a wheel-over-wheel gyroscoping system to climb stairs - but production was discontinued in 2009. It was expensive (about $22,000) and required users to have use of at least one arm, some upper body control, and a strong grip on a sturdy handrail, meaning a significant number of wheelchair-bound folks could not use it and even those who could would by stymied by the lack of a good handrail.

Those physical requirements do not apply to this new machine, so if it actually comes to market, it could be a genuine breakthrough for many wheelchair-users.

And wouldn't that be good news.

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