Interview: Inventor of the smart wheelchair


When the news broke about there being a British finalist in the Toyota Mobility Challenge, we got excited.  Dominic spoke to Andrew Slorance about his newest idea and learnt more about the smart wheelchair.

Phoenix AI - Andrew Slorance

What’s the smart wheelchair about?

Key to the design of a manual wheelchair is the Centre of Gravity.  By making the Centre of Gravity smart, the wheelchair can then become more or less prone to tipping or reduce the amount of effort required to push a manual wheelchair.  What does this mean for the user though?

Phoenix AI Wheelchair - (C) Simon McKeown

Phoenix AI Wheelchair – (C) Simon McKeown

“It’s all about the energy required by the user to push or tip back.  By reducing the effort and energy required to move, the user can move around with minimal effort.” explained Andrew.  “The main design of a lightweight wheelchair hasn’t really changed in 40 years but technology has.”

By moving the axle position forward as the user leans forward, more of the user’s weight is kept towards the rear wheels, eliminating front wheel drag.  The front wheel drag is what makes wheelchairs difficult to push. The reactive system will move the centre of gravity backward as the user leans back to prevent them tipping. The result being a smart wheelchair that optimises the centre of gravity for maximum agility and maximum stability at the same time – something conventional manual wheelchairs can’t do.

To this end, Andrew is keen to use the latest technologies including Finite Element Analysis (FEA), carbon fibre and graphene to build a wheelchair that is robust for the user.  He is clear about the wheelchair having reactive systems that include electronic braking, power assist and even data recording.

Smart wheelchair data recording?

Every movement a person makes can be analysed against things like personal fitness, energy exertion and posture.  Along with this, there is key information about the world around a wheelchair user that can be quickly analysed to give a user clear information, such as changes in the way they might be sat, the amount of time coasting or how to improve their push-to-motion ratio.

We got talking about what smart actually means too.  Many people consider smart to mean home automation or voice control.  Andrew was clear about what his smart ambitions actually mean.

“The system should learn about the user and react to many different situations quickly.  As well as that, it needs to feedback about the world around the user – the surface in the path ahead for example or if there is an easier route.”

Phoenix AI Wheelchair - (C) Simon McKeown

Phoenix AI Wheelchair – (C) Simon McKeown

So it’s already clear that the idea needs to have a certain amount of intelligence.  Does that mean that Phoenix will be developing its own version of Alexa or Siri?

“We don’t know yet,” said Andrew.  “We know that there is a lot of potential with commercial systems out there.  We need to map our product against the needs of the user and identify where the gaps are in the market.  Then we can move to the development of a minimum viable product.  It’s our intention though to use plug and play principles as much as possible.”

Where could we see the smart wheelchair?

The question about which platform might be moved us neatly to the idea of the technology involved.  I was curious about the opportunities within the market.  I asked if we should expect this to only be available on the Phoenix AI wheelchair?

“We’ve not got that far.  We’re open to the right answers for the future but that could be several years away yet.”

So what’s the next step for Phoenix AI and the smart wheelchair?

“We’ve got 18 months now to develop this to prototype stages.  We have a one in five chance to win in Tokyo in 2020 where the final prize of $1 million is on offer to bring the winning product to market.”

We wish Andrew the best of luck – we’ll keep following this journey with interest.  Remember – you can follow all our coverage on Facebook and Twitter, as well as using our follow tools by logging in here.

A wheelchair user for 20 years, Dominic looks at how a wheelchair works for its user base, not the brochure. Dominic is our lead editor.

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