Toyota's Mobility Unlimited Challenge aims to encourage innovations that will make living with lower-limb paralysis easier - Felix Todd profiles the five new mobility devices that made the penultimate cut and received $500,000 in funding each
From mobile exoskeletons to self-balancing wheelchairs, the five finalists for the Mobility Unlimited Challenge include include some innovative new mobility devices.
Launched by the Toyota Mobility Foundation in 2017, the three-year competition encourages entrepreneurs from around the world to create solutions for people suffering from lower-limb paralysis.
Millions suffer from the condition worldwide, with one of the most common causes being spinal cord injury, of which the World Health Organization estimates there are between 250,000 and 500,000 new cases every year.
Each of the five finalists, who were announced at the CES 2019 consumer tech conference in Las Vegas today (7 January), will receive a grant of $500,000 (£391,000) to help them further develop their idea, with the final winner receiving $1m (£780,000) in Tokyo in 2020.
Dr Eric Krotkov, chief science officer at the Toyota Research Institute and one of the judges of the challenge, said: “There are so many technological opportunities to explore approaches to alleviate challenges stemming from lower-limb paralysis.
“A competition like the Mobility Unlimited Challenge gets innovators to focus on the same problem to identify something of great common interest that serves society.
“I am excited by these finalists who have a breadth of technical approaches – wheelchairs, orthotics, braces, exoskeletons – and I look forward to seeing how they will take these devices out of their conceptual stages to help our end users.”
Here we profile the five entries that have made it to the penultimate stage of the Mobility Unlimited challenge.
Mobility Unlimited finalists
The Evowalk – Evolution Devices
The Evowalk is a non-intrusive sleeve which goes around the user’s leg and has sensors that track the user’s walking motion and will stimulate the right muscles at the right time in order to improve mobility.
It features bespoke, timed muscle stimulation that helps user’s muscles contract as they walk, which Evolution Devices claims will not only help them day to day but will also rehabilitate muscles over time.
Evolution Devices co-founder and CEO Pierluigi Mantovani said: “This support will help us finish our research and develop the device further, so we can get it to the people who really need it. People like my dad.
“My dad has multiple sclerosis and developed foot drop. He was recommended a device that was far too expensive and so myself and some friends build this prototype that helped.
“After that, we wanted to make something affordable for others. Our main goal has always been to help people regain the ability to walk freely again.”
Moby – Italdesign
Italdesign aims to create a network of small electric vehicles for wheelchair users to access and benefit from enhanced urban mobility, accessible via an app-based share scheme.
Styling itself as the equivalent to cycle-sharing schemes but for wheelchair users, it aims to make transport for the latter simpler and easier.
Italdesign project manager for smart cities Serena De Mori said: “Moby is a concept we developed over time, working with users of wheelchairs.
“They said they wanted a way to make travelling easier and so we developed this platform.
“We entered this challenge because we wanted to have a different kind mobility solution which is accessible to all.”
PhoenixAI Wheelchair – Phoenix Instinct
The PhoenixAI Wheelchair is a self-balancing wheelchair made from ultra-lightweight carbon fibre.
Using smart sensors, the chair is able to configure itself depending on what the user is doing in order to keep them centred, with algorithms that will move the chair back if the user is leaning too far forward, for example.
The chair will also continually adjust its centre of gravity, making it easier to push and turn by removing drag and uncomfortable motion, in addition to providing power assistance when scaling slopes and automatic brakes that eliminate the need for the user to grip the wheels to slow down.
Phoenix Instinct founder and CEO Andrew Slorance said: “I wanted to be part of this challenge because I broke my back when I was 14, which was now 35 years ago.
“By the time I was 16, I’d decided that I would one day design a wheelchair that would change perceptions by using cutting-edge materials and styling.
“I knew the next step beyond advanced materials has to be to make wheelchairs smart. But that costs a huge amount of money in development.
“So, when I saw this challenge, I thought here is the money to develop this technology. No-one else is going to do it.
“No company is going to decide to spend half a million dollars on research and development to advance the manual wheelchair. Why should they?
“As long as their competitor also doesn’t do it the status quo can continue with wheelchairs remaining much as they were 35 years ago.
“Now we’ve been selected we’ve got 18 months to turn the wheelchair, which has been in the technological dark for so long, into a futuristic device that intelligently makes wheelchair life easier.”
Qolo (Quality of Life with Locomotion) – Team Qolo
The Qolo standing device is a lightweight, mobile exoskeleton on wheels, which can act as a standard wheelchair or enable people with mobility issues to stand with support for both the upper and lower body.
Once standing, the device lets users to travel around in a standing position, which Team Qolo claims will change both physiological and social aspects of everyday living.
Kenji Suzuki, of Team Qolo, said: “We want to remove the chair from wheelchair. Our device gives users the choice to sit or stand, using cutting edge technologies.
“This means that wheelchair users can interact with other people at the same eye-level, improving communication and changing the way they see the world.
“Once we develop our product and people start using it and we see how it has helped people, that will make us truly happy.”
Quix – IHMC & Myolyn
The Quix is a robotic, powered exoskeleton with motors at the hips, knees, ankles to help people with lower-limb paralysis move upright, developed by IHMC (Institute for Human & Machine Cognition) and medical tech group Myolyn.
It features perception technology lifted from autonomous vehicles and control algorithms for balancing autonomous humanoid robots, both of which keep the user stable.
IHMC’s Peter Neuhaus said: “In the business world, developing technologies for people with lower-limb paralysis has been extraordinarily hard.
“We’ve constantly struggled against people saying the market is too small and because of that people aren’t putting in the effort, research or investment this field deserves, meaning there hasn’t been enough advancement.
“We’re now focused on the next stage of the challenge. On the engineering challenges to meet the needs and wants of users, and on the business development side, making this commercial and ensuring it gets to the people who need it most.”