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Since 2017, the Toyota Mobility Foundation, in collaboration with Nesta Challenges, has been conducting the Mobility Unlimited Challenge to advance the state of assistive devices. The organizations today announced Phoenix Instinct as the winner of the $1 million first prize for its smart wheelchair.
Toyota Motor Corp. is not only one of the world’s largest automakers; it is also supporting development of mobility services, service robots, and other technologies to augment human capabilities through its foundation and challenge.
“Around the world, millions of people are living with lower-limb paralysis (the most common causes being strokes, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis),” stated Toyota. “The World Health Organization estimates there are 250,000-500,000 new cases of spinal cord injury globally every year.”
“Mobility means freedom. It means liberation from being limited in life,” said Sir Philip Craven, former president of the International Paralympic Committee and a member of Toyota’s board of directors. “As we believe at Toyota, when we are free to move, we are able to fully participate in society, and I’m excited for each of these devices supported by the Mobility Unlimited Challenge, particularly the winning device, because of how it will allow so many people to better do what they want to do.”
Finalists focus on accessibility
In a virtual press conference today, the five finalists discussed their journeys, recounting how they worked with people with disabilities, frustrations along the way, and the promise of their technologies beyond the competition. Sophie Morgan, a British journalist, moderator, and wheelchair user, noted the challenges of improving inclusivity and accessibility.
Berkeley, Calif.-based Evolution Devices Inc. designed the EvoWalk, a wearable device that uses artificial intelligence to help the muscles act at the the right time for walking in rehabilitation of people with foot drop conditions. The company has been collecting data and is still on track to launch in the second quarter of 2021, said Pierluigi Mantovani, CEO of Evolution Devices.
The University of Tsukuba’s Team Qolo, for “Quality of Life with Locomotion,” developed a device that combined wheelchair and exoskeleton functions to assist people with lower-limb paralysis.
“We are very proud to be one of the teams, not just the finalists, but the more than 80 teams that participated,” said Kenji Suzuki, a professor at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. “We would like to work together with other people. The Toyota Mobility Challenge enabled us to work with more partners around the world. We’ve learned lots of things from Toyota.”
The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Pensacola, Fla., and MYOLYN in Gainesville, Fla., have been working on Quix, a powered exoskeleton. The competition has helped bring attention to the need for funding for assistive technology development, said Matthew Bellman, chief technology officer at MYOLIN.
Italy-based Italdesign developed the Wheem-i, a semi-autonomous, micro-mobility, ride-sharing vehicle for wheelchair users intended for multiple terrains. The company works in the automotive sector, and like Toyota, it is interested in the future of “sustainable mobility,” said Franco Bay, head of public relations and communication at Italdesign.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) assessed the entries and provided mentorship alongside a team of Toyota subject-matter experts, and the winner was chosen by a panel of expert judges.
“We would love to continue working with the Toyota Research Institute,” Bellman and Mantovani told The Robot Report. The teams also plan to work with more healthcare providers to expand awareness, testing, and adoption.
“We’ve been working with a lot of physical therapists in California,” said Mantovani. “We’re working with Precision Rehabilitation in Long Beach, Calif., for our first pilot and are working with UCSF for physical therapy clinical pilots.”
“MYOLIN already has customers all over the country, including major neuro rehab programs,” said Bellman.
Phoenix Instinct takes first prize
U.K.-based Phoenix Instinct developed the Phoenix i, a manual wheelchair with a “smart center of gravity.” It uses artificial intelligence to automatically adjust its center of gravity, making the ultra-lightweight carbon-fiber frame more stable and easier to maneuver.
Phoenix i uses front-wheel power-assist to reduce painful vibrations and minimize strain on the user, said the team. The chair’s powered braking system automatically detects when the user is going downhill and adjusts to manage the user’s descent.
“Winning the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge is incredible for Phoenix Instinct and for wheelchair users,” said Andrew Slorance, CEO of Phoenix Instinct. “The wheelchair as we know it has been technologically unchanged for decades. The funding we received through the challenge allowed us to prove smart technology makes for an easier to use and safer wheelchair with the potential for a suite of new features. With the prize money, we can now advance this work and bring the Phoenix I wheelchair to the consumer.”
“I’ve spent 37 years in a wheelchair … and this is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said. “Wheelchairs have been stuck since the 1980s because they’re mechanical. Think of how much smartphones have evolved. Once you start thinking digital, there’s a whole new horizon.”
The company hopes for funding from automakers getting into this space, Slorance said. It has also working to balance functionality and price as it works toward commercialization.
“There’s no point in creating a $15,000 wheelchair and expecting it to take off,” Slorance told The Robot Report. “We have to price match pound for pound what existing lightweight chairs are costing. We’re developing it in-house and making them here. If you outsource that work to aerospace or Formula 1 companies that specialize in carbon fiber, the cost goes up. We worked to keep it lightweight with the electronics and keep the price viable.”
He cited progress in prosthetic limbs. “Insurers will only reimburse more expensive [models] if the benefit to health is clear,” said Slorance. “We have to get to market now with the same money.” The organization is continuing to conduct testing and is aiming for availability in 18 to 24 months, he said.
“We’ve put together the platform that developers can use for years into the future,” Slorance added. “Wheelchairs don’t need to be only manual — they can carry batteries, sensors … GPS tags, and apps. People have been developing robots for companionship, and wheelchairs can be quite isolating, so who knows where smart chairs can go?”