A disabled entrepreneur and product designer is set to develop a revolutionary prototype of the world’s first “intelligent” manual wheelchair, after winning half a million dollars in funding through a global competition.
Andrew Slorance, whose start-up company Phoenix Instinct is based in Forres, Moray, in the north of Scotland, was this week announced as one of five finalists in the worldwide Mobility Unlimited Challenge (MUC).
Slorance hopes to produce something that has “never been done before”: an ultra-lightweight wheelchair that uses artificial intelligence to create an “intelligent” centre of gravity, providing a chair that is both stable and easy to self-propel.
The wheelchair will also have intelligent, electronic braking so the user will not need to grab the tyres to slow down on steep slopes.
Slorance told Disability News Service (DNS) this week: “I genuinely think it would be a revolution of the wheelchair.
“It’s a huge responsibility to wheelchair-users because the wheelchair has stayed as it has been for the last five years with very little innovation.
“The wheelchair companies themselves, it doesn’t look like they are going to do anything like this. They’re going to carry on dishing out the same stuff.
“And here we have the chance to move the posts and show them and wheelchair-users the wheelchair can be a lot better.”
The problem with lightweight wheelchairs, he says, is that even if they are easy to lift, the amount of weight on the small front wheels can make them difficult to push because the centre of gravity is too far forward.
But if you move the centre of gravity – the axle position – further back it becomes “very tippy and prone to falling backwards”.
What he will do with his new wheelchair – known currently as the Phoenix AI (pictured) – is to use artificial intelligence and sensors that allow the wheelchair to adjust its own centre of gravity according to what the wheelchair-user is doing.
“So it will always be very light to push because all of the weight will be going through the back wheels,” he says, “but it will be smart enough to keep the wheelchair stable, so any time the wheelchair looks like it may be prone to falling backwards, the system will kick in and correct it so that can’t happen.”
This, says Slorance, has never been done before.
The centre of gravity is the number one cause of accidents for wheelchair-users, he says, while the problems linked to the need to make the chair stable make it harder to push, create a lot of vibrations through the front wheels, and cause muscle spasms and other discomfort.
The new chair will also have intelligent, electronic braking, so it will automatically slow down to a pre-programmed speed when on a slope.
“Wheelchairs don’t have brakes,” he says. “They have parking brakes, so when you get in and out of a wheelchair you can keep it in one place, but when you’re going down a steep slope in rain you’ve just got your hands.
“Imagine saying to a cyclist, ‘Here’s your new bike, it doesn’t have any brakes, just grab hold of the tyre if you want to slow down.’”
All five of the MUC finalists will receive $500,000 to develop prototypes of their designs, with one of them set to receive another $1,000,000 when the winner of the challenge is announced in Tokyo in September 2020.
The Toyota Mobility Foundation launched the $4 million global competition in 2017 in partnership with the UK charity Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, with the aim of improving the mobility and independence of millions of people with lower-limb paralysis.
Four of the finalists, including Slorance and Phoenix Instinct, have already benefited from $50,000 MUC grants to help them develop their ideas.
Now he and the other four finalists have 18 months to produce a prototype to show to the judges.
He says he and his team have a “massive task” ahead of them.
They have proved that they can electronically adjust the centre of gravity through censors, so when the user moves their body position around on the wheelchair the centre of gravity will adjust itself – in a similar way that the Segway device keeps itself upright – but they still need to create an ultra-light wheelchair that remains “super-duper light” even after the electronics have been added.
He believes that such a product would be a revolutionary development of the wheelchair.
Slorance believes that his team should be able to get their wheelchair to market within three years.
If they do, he believes that smart wheelchairs will be commonplace within five years, just as mobile phones, fridges, and cars are increasingly becoming smart through their use of artificial intelligence.
Soon, he says, “people will be driving in driverless cars, they will be taking them home, the car will be telling the oven to turn itself on, while the fridge is ordering some shopping, but the wheelchair, the thing the person most needs more than anything else in life, will be this standard product that existed 35 years ago.
He says: “I don’t think it will stay like that. I think that making smart chairs is the natural progression and I think we are the people to get the ball rolling on that.”
Innovation in the wheelchair market has been slow so far, he says, partly because it is a niche market, but also because the companies that design wheelchairs are mechanical engineers, they are not electronic or software engineers and so do not have the expensive expertise they need at hand.
He believes this could change, if smart wheelchairs become the norm, and the big electronics and automotive companies join the market, ratcheting up the speed of innovation.
It could be, he says, “a very exciting time for people like myself as an innovator but also as a wheelchair-user”.
Slorance himself already has a strong track record of innovation in wheelchair design, after conceiving and designing the Carbon Black wheelchair, which is made almost entirely from carbon fibre.
He has wanted to design wheelchairs almost from the moment be broke his back when he was 14 and was presented by an occupational therapist with an “horrific” NHS wheelchair, and thought to himself: “Wheelchairs have to be better than this.”
He built a career in television, editing video for Channel 4 News and Sky News, but gave it up to design the wheelchair that would become the Carbon Black, driven by this belief that “wheelchairs could be better” and the feeling that he was “creatively starved” in journalism where the news is “here today and gone tomorrow”.
It was not quite as big a leap as it sounds, he says, because wheelchair-users have to problem-solve every day, but there was still a “long learning journey” ahead of him, on carbon fibre manufacturing, entrepreneurship, and finding the right people in computer-aided design “who would actually create the design that was in my head”.
The Carbon Black wheelchair that resulted from this journey was critically-acclaimed and was even exhibited at the Design Museum in 2012 after coming runner-up to the Olympic torch in the Designs of the Year competition.
But after he was forced out of his own company by investors he had brought on board – a “very tough thing to go through”, he says – he had to start all over again, which he did by starting up a new firm.
The name of his new company – Phoenix Instinct, which sells ultra-manoeuvrable luggage that can be towed by wheelchairs, which he designed himself after launching a Kickstarter fundraising campaign – has a double-meaning.
He says: “Every wheelchair-user customer that we have at the moment has Phoenix Instinct – they have the ability to get up every day and overcome the adversity that’s tried so hard to beat them.
“But also for me, I have Phoenix Instinct as an entrepreneur, regardless of what happened to me at Carbon Black. Carbon Black is just part of my story.”
The other four MUC finalists – two from the US, one from Japan and one from Italy, whittled down from 80 entries spanning 28 countries – will also each benefit from $500,000 development funding over the next 18 months.
The Evowalk is a smart, wearable leg sleeve that would help people with partial lower limb paralysis regain their mobility; the Moby is an integrated network of wheel-on electric devices that would allow users of manual wheelchairs the benefits of a powered chair through the equivalent of a cycle share scheme; the Qolo is a lightweight, mobile exoskeleton on wheels, which would allow users to sit or stand; and the Quix is a robotic, powered exoskeleton with motors at the hips, knees and ankles, which aims to offer someone with lower-limb paralysis “fast, stable, and agile upright mobility”.
Ryan Klem, director of programs for Toyota Mobility Foundation, said: “These five finalists have shown real innovation driven by human-centered design.
“We think that the technology incorporated in these devices could change the lives of a huge number of people around the world, not just for people with lower-limb paralysis, but also those with a wider range of mobility needs.”
Charlotte Macken, of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, said: “Current personal mobility devices are often unable to fully meet the needs of users due to limitations affecting functionality and usability.
“Historically, the pace of innovation is slow, due to small and fragmented markets and difficulties in getting new technology funded by health-care systems and insurers.
“This can make the field unattractive to the very people who could help change the world.
“We hope that challenges like this can inspire innovation and are excited to see how the five finalists use this opportunity to develop their ideas further.”
Meanwhile, Slorance says he can see a time when smart wheelchairs are all part of a connected network and are able to communicate with each other.
This could mean, if he wanted to travel from Covent Garden to Hyde Park in London, that his wheelchair would be able to ask other wheelchairs in the network how it could do this in an accessible way, whether there were any slopes on the route, and what the road surface was like.
“My chair will be able to network with other wheelchairs that have done that journey,” he says, “and tell me exactly where I need to go, and what accessible places there are en route.
“I think there’s a whole new world that can open up with the smart technology in wheelchairs.”
He says this could eventually see wheelchair-users with an advantage over non-wheelchair-users, something that has already happened in athletics with competitors with running blades, where, he says, “someone with carbon fibre legs can actually have an advantage over someone running on natural legs”.
A couple of years ago, he was in his wheelchair on an Edinburgh street and his front wheel caught a paving slab that was sticking up.
“I fell flat on my face,” says Slorance. “I scarred my nose quite badly, I broke it. There was nothing I could do.
“I think as we move forward, we will see intelligent systems implemented in wheelchairs that would have detected that paving slab sticking up and would automatically turn the chair a different way or sounded some sort of alarm long before I would have known it was there.
“In that sense, unless you’re going to wear shoes that have sensors that tell you there’s a paving slab sticking up, then, yes, maybe the wheelchair-user might be at an advantage.”
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