Futuristic manual wheelchair shown sitting on an empty road with mountains in the background, part of the Toyota Mobility Challenge

On January 7, the Toyota Mobility Foundation announced the finalists for its Mobility Unlimited Challenge at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The finalists include teams from around the world, working on projects ranging from an autonomous mobility vehicle booking service, to a next-generation exoskeleton, to a smart-technology infused manual wheelchair that could represent the future of the category.

Each of the finalists will receive a $500,000 grant, in addition to additional workshops and mentoring support to help turn their concepts into reality. The winner, who will receive a $1 million prize, will be announced at the 2020 Paralympic Games in September 2020.

The goal of the challenge is to spur the innovation of smart mobility devices that can help improve the lives of people with lower limb paralysis. Charlotte Macken of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Center, which is partnering to run the challenge, explains in a press release:

“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.”

Andrew Slorance, the man behind both the Phoenix Instinct wheelchair luggage system and the Carbon Black wheelchair, was selected as one of the finalists for his revolutionary manual wheelchair project, also named the Phoenix Instinct. The chair will be made out of carbon fiber and have several smart technologies built in, including center of gravity that will automatically adjust based on both terrain and body position to improve stability and pushing efficiency while reducing vibrations. It will also include intelligent electronic braking. “When a user is going downhill, they’ll no longer have to grip onto the pushrims for dear life,” says Slorance. “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 chair aims to be competitive in weight with other lightweight manual wheelchairs, somewhere in the range of 18 pounds, while also featuring an integrated power assist. “It will still be a manual self-propelled wheelchair, but it will feel a little bit like someone’s actually giving you a shove when you’re going up a slope or against a headwind,” says Slorance, who is based out of the United Kingdom.

Other finalists include:

•  Evowalk from Evolution Devices, United States — an advanced functional electrical stimulation sleeve designed to help improve walking mobility.

•  Moby from Italdesign, Italy — a network of autonomous, wheel-on powered mobility devices that can be called via an app and used for transport in urban areas.

•  Qolo from Team Qolo at the University of Tsukuba, Japan — a combination exoskeleton and power wheelchair that provides mobility while sitting or standing

•  Quix from IHMC and MYOLYN, United States — a next-generation exoskeleton offering faster, more stable upright mobility than current systems.

 

While the final winner has yet to be selected, Slorance sees the finalist grants as providing an opportunity for technological advancement rarely seen in the mobility industry. “It’s a massive thank you to the Toyota Mobility Foundation. I could never go to investors and say, ‘Can I have half a million dollars? I want to make a smart wheelchair.’ They would say, ‘No, make a smart wheelchair, then we might invest in it,’” says Slorance. “But to get it to happen this way gives an opportunity for innovators like me to make a difference that otherwise would never happen.”

Please follow along on our website and on our Facebook and Twitter feeds for the latest developments with the Mobility Unlimited Challenge, the Phoenix Instinct and all the other finalists.

Photo Credit: Simon McKeown/Craig McMullen