TOKYO -- To a person using a wheelchair, even a small bump in the road can become a major obstacle. A moment of carelessness can easily result in a loss of balance and a nasty spill.
Putting the latest engineering know-how and information technology to work, today's electric wheelchairs are not only safer and more maneuverable, they are giving users greater independence and improving their quality of life.
It takes just a flick of the finger to operate the Model A, an electric wheelchair developed by California-based startup Whill. The controller is manipulated in much the same way as a computer mouse, and registers even delicate movements.
Whill is a young company, in more ways than one: The three Japanese who started it in 2012 were all born in the 1980s. The founders previously worked for Nissan Motor, Sony and Olympus. NTT Docomo and Itochu group companies are among its investors.
The Model A carries a price tag of 950,000 yen ($7,839).
In general, reducing tire diameter allows a wheelchair to make tighter turns, but it creates other problems with drivability. To overcome this challenge, Whill introduced what it calls Omni Wheels for the Model A's front wheels.
Each wheel is composed of 24 smaller wheels mounted perpendicularly to the direction of forward motion. These small wheels help when making tight turns. To move forward or backward, Omini Wheel rotates as a whole, like a conventional tire. When swiveling, only the small wheels in contact with the ground rotate, either left or right, depending upon the desired direction. To turn, these two movements -- the forward rotation of Omni Wheel and perpendicular rotation of the smaller wheels -- are combined.
Research into applying the special wheel to wheelchairs started some time ago. A stumbling block was its complex structure, which tended to reduce stability, making for a poor ride.
Whill brought on an engineer who previously worked for Toyota Motor and tasked him with overcoming that difficulty. Muneaki Fukuoka, Whill's chief technology officer, described the arduous road to success: "Not only did we have to carefully engineer the parts to absorb vibration, it took repeated trial and error to determine how many wheels to attach and the spacing between them."
Another unique feature of the Model A is that it can be operated with Apple's iPhone, giving the user greater independence. The smartphone connects to the wheelchair via Bluetooth, and a dedicated app provides the controls.
A person who has just woken up, for example, can call the Model A to their bedside from its resting place in a corner of the room. When going for a drive, the user can stow the wheelchair in the back of the car after taking a seat behind the wheel.
Whill plans to eventually add GPS functionality to the wheelchair, so family members and caregivers will always know where the user is.
One of the daily frustrations for people who use wheelchairs is hills. To make sure the going is smooth even when the road ahead isn't, Yamaha Motor introduced the JW Swing in 2014.
The wheelchair, priced from 363,000 yen, makes use of the basic technology from the Pas, an electrically power-assisted bicycle developed by Yamaha. An electric motor is mounted in the center of each of the wheelchair's rear tires. The force with which the user pushes the wheels determines the amount of assistance these motors provide, making even steep inclines easy to climb.
Unlike an electric bicycle, however, a wheelchair must maintain balance between left- and right-side tires to travel in a straight line. This would present a challenge for users with more strength in one arm than the other if the two motors responded independently to the force applied to each wheel.
To address this, Yamaha developed special software that wirelessly adjusts the settings of each motor on the JW Swing depending on the needs and abilities of the user. "Even a person who can only move one arm and leg due to paralysis can travel in a straight line," said Toru Matsunae, chief development investigator of the JW technology group.
In the U.S., wheelchairs are starting to be seen as "information equipment" for health management. U.S. chipmaker Intel has developed a "connected" wheelchair in cooperation with renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease that degrades physical strength throughout the body. In addition to cameras and devices that monitor the user's physical condition, including heart rate and body temperature, the wheelchair is equipped with an Intel data processing board so that this information can be remotely monitored.
As technology advances, the wheelchair will continue to evolve as a tool for improving the quality of its user's life.