Around the world, millions of people are living with lower-limb paralysis (the most common causes being strokes, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis). While there are no statistics on paralysis worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates there are 250,000-500,000 new cases of spinal cord injury globally every year.
As part of its Mobility for All mission, Toyota Mobility Foundation together with Nesta Challenges established the three-year Mobility Unlimited Challenge that called talented engineers, innovators and designers from around the world for ground-breaking devices – integrated with the latest technologies – to enhance the mobility and independence of people with lower limb paralysis.
The foundation last month brought the competition to a close last month with Phoenix Instinct from the UK emerging as the winner among 80 entries from 28 countries, receiving US$1 million to further develop its intelligent ultra-light carbon fibre wheelchair and bring it to market to transform the lives of millions in the disabled community.
“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,” said Andrew Slorance, CEO, Phoenix Instinct.
The Phoenix I uses intelligent systems to automatically adjust its centre of gravity, making the ultra-lightweight carbon fibre frame extremely stable and easier to manoeuvre. It uses front-wheel power-assist to reduce painful vibrations and minimise strain on the user. The chair's intelligent powered braking system automatically detects when the user is going downhill and adjusts to manage the user's descent.
“It's a very exciting time with Toyota moving into the mobility sector, we're going to see significant advances in mobility devices. At Phoenix Instinct we're thrilled to be leading the smart wheelchair revolution,” Slorance said.
The University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) led the assessment of the entries and provided mentorship alongside a team of Toyota subject matter experts, and the winner was chosen by a panel of expert judges.
The judging criteria was based on innovation, insight and impact, functionality and usability, quality and safety, and market potential and affordability.
"Mobility means freedom. It means liberation from being limited in life. 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,” said Philip Craven, member of the board of directors at Toyota Motor Corporation and former president of the International Paralympic Committee.
Ryan Klem, director of programs at Toyota Mobility Foundation said the entire competition has been an enriching journey, bringing together the efforts of many experts, mentors, advocates, and more to invest in the five finalists to develop their devices and bring them into the lives of people that need them.
“We are thrilled to announce Phoenix Instinct as the winner of the Mobility Unlimited Challenge. The judges were impressed by the way the device incorporated intelligent systems in its design in a way that represents a true advance for the wheelchair and could see it having a clear route to market,” Klem said.
He added: “We hope, through this process, that all the teams are able to find resources to do the same as they have all shown incredible creativity and innovation. We believe this Challenge will result in huge improvements in assistive technology and are extremely proud of what all of the teams have achieved."
Liz Vossen of Nesta Challenges echoed the same sentiment: "For too long, the disability community has faced restricted mobility and accessibility. The coronavirus pandemic has forced a change in attitudes towards remote working, showing that it is possible to be present and productive at home. However, the pandemic also highlighted the need for non-disabled people to have a better understanding of the importance of mobility for all. We hope that these devices will improve the mobility of people across the world and contribute to a more inclusive future."
Toyota Mobility Foundation and Nesta Challenges shared a glimpse of innovative entrees from the four other finalists:
- The Evowalk by Evolution Devices (United States)―a smart wearable simulator that goes right below the knee and uses artificial intelligence to support your muscles at the right time aiding in rehabilitating walking and preventing falls for people with foot drop.
- Qolo (Quality of Life with Locomotion) by Team Qolo, University of Tsukuba (Japan)―a standing mobility device that integrates exoskeleton and wheelchair functions. It supports the function of standing and sitting with a passive assist mechanism for people with lower limb paralysis.
- Quix by IHMC & MYOLYN (United States)―a highly mobile, powered exoskeleton offering fast, stable and agile upright mobility.
- Wheem-I by Italdesign (Italy)―a wheel-on semi-autonomous electric device that provides ride sharing for wheelchair users. It is primarily designed for micro mobility and is usable on a variety of surfaces.