Oct. 23 - Wheelchair users may soon have greater freedom of movement than ever before with the development of a new chair equipped not just with wheels but legs as well. Invented by scientists at Japan's Chiba Institute of Technology, the chair is being prepared for commercial sale by the end of next year. Rob Muir reports.
It's a wheelchair that developer Shuro Nakajima says will transform the lives of the disabled. Four robotic legs controlled by sensors can take the chair over and around obstacles too big or steep for conventional wheelchairs to negotiate. It can climb stairs and bridge gaps in paths or between a train and a platform. (SOUNDBITE) ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR SHURO NAKAJIMA, CHIBA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY DEPARTMENT OF ADVANCED ROBOTICS, SAYING: "When you leave the house to go to the station, or to go shopping, this Personal Mobility Vehicle has the ability to get you over obstacles you might find in town -- whether that's steps, rough terrain or gaps." With a top speed of nearly six kilometres per hour, Nakajima's chair is attracting attention. It's controlled by a joystick with a Bluetooth-connected smartphone keeping track of the speed and sensing technology. (SOUNDBITE) ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR SHURO NAKAJIMA, CHIBA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY DEPARTMENT OF ADVANCED ROBOTICS, SAYING: "Each of the four wheels is independent of the others, so they can each react independently when the chair comes up across some sort of step. They aren't tied into responding in the same way at the same time. What that means is it can climb whether it approaches the step straight on or at an angle, it's fine either way. In that sense we've really pushed wheelchair technology forward." Nakajima says he hopes to have his chair in production and ready for sale by the end of 2013. At a projected price of about $25,000 he'll be aiming for the upper end of the mobility device market..but he says the freedom his chair will provide is priceless.