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Mobility Unlimited Challenge

Technology to reduce mobility barriers

Guest post by Fiona MacRae, Tech, Science and Health Writer

In 1933, Monopoly was invented, the first solo round-the-world flight took place and a revolutionary lightweight folding wheelchair was unveiled.

Today, computer games have eclipsed board games and space tourism is rapidly becoming a reality – but the basic design of mobility devices have hardly moved on. 

The $4 million Mobility Unlimited Challenge is seeking to change that.

Launched in November 2017, it challenged innovators from around the world to create innovative personal mobility devices incorporating intelligent systems. Devices with the potential to radically improve the mobility and independence of people with lower limb paralysis.

Crucially, entrants had to commit to developing their devices with those who will use them – people with lower limb paralysis.

Ten $50,000 seed funding grants allowed innovators, who might not otherwise have the resources, to develop their ideas enough to enter the main phase of the Challenge.

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Eighty teams from five continents entered the main phase of the Challenge, which is being run by Nesta Challenges and the Toyota Mobility Foundation, which uses Toyota’s expertise in technology, safety and the environment to support the development of a more mobile society.

Entries weren’t just limited to wheelchair designs and the five finalists, which were unveiled in January 2019, also include two exoskeletons, an orthotic and a ride share scheme-like device.

  • Evowalk is sensor-studded sleeve that goes around the leg and stimulating the right leg muscles at the right time to improve mobility.
  • Moby is ride share-like scheme that allows users of manual wheelchairs to slide them onto an electric-powered pod when they want to travel longer distances.
  • Phoenix AI is an ultra-light wheelchair that uses smart sensors to adjust its centre of gravity to fit what the user is doing, making the chair easier to push and turn, as well as safer and more comfortable.
  • Qolo is lightweight exoskeleton on wheels that allows users to sit or stand, “removing the chair from wheelchair”.
  • Quix is a robotic powered exoskeleton that will allow people with lower limb paralysis to “go wherever it is they need to go”.
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The finalists have been awarded $500,000 each to develop a plan to make the device available to users and prototype capable of user demonstration.

They will also receive mentoring from engineering experts, collaborate with end users and have the chance to attend workshops tailored to their needs.

The $1 million winner will be announced in Tokyo in 2020.

Charlotte Macken, prize design manager at Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre said: “Current personal mobility devices are often unable to fully meet the needs of users due to limitations affecting functionality and usability. 

“Historically, the pace of innovation is slow, due to small and fragmented markets and difficulties in getting new technology funded by health-care systems and insurers. This can make the field unattractive to the very people who could help change the world. 

“We hope that challenges like this can inspire innovation and are excited to see how the five finalists use this opportunity to develop their ideas further.”

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