28 August 2009

New electric wheelchair prototype offers greater accessibility, sporty style

A man demonstrates moving from a bed onto the new electric wheelchair on Wednesday. (Mainichi)Researchers presented an electric wheelchair prototype on Wednesday that promises to offer greater mobility while lending the conveyances a little sporty style.

The new chair, designed by the Veda International Robot R&D Center in Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, features a backless design to make getting on and off the machine easier, and can be maneuvered in tight spaces.

Current wheelchair models, with their backs, armrests and large wheels, tend to be difficult to get in and out of from beds and other places around the home, leading to occasional falls. Furthermore, their low seats make it difficult for people sitting in them to reach things in high places.

The new design from Veda -- set up by a number of universities from across the globe including Waseda University and Kyushu University -- is more like a scooter than a traditional chair, with two larger driving wheels and two smaller wheels, and weighs in at around 100 kilograms. The seat can be raised or lowered at the press of a button, making it easy for a single person with the use of his or her upper body to get in or out unassisted.

"It was our task to make a wheelchair that was easy to get in and out of," says Shinichiro Takasugi, a lecturer at Kyushu University and a member of Kyushu University Hospital's rehabilitation department, which participated in the new chair's development. "This is the product of a ground-breaking concept."

New features, such as obstacle-avoidance and being able to summon the chair by calling it, may be added in the future.

The electric wheelchair will run for four hours on a single charge, and if it gains approval from government authorities, will be sharing the sidewalks with other electric wheelchairs. The developers are hoping to partner with private enterprise to mass produce the chairs a year from now, at a projected retail price of 500,000 yen each.

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