Up till very recently, the fundamental design of the wheelchair had altered very little since 1783, when British inventor John Dawson created the Bath chair, a seat featuring two large wheels and one smaller one. It was originally designed to for access the waters in the Roman spa city of Bath and increased in popularity to such an extent that by 1830, Dawson’s chair was being used as the most usual form of transport for people with disabilities.
That being said, despite some minor design modifications during the 19th and 20th centuries—such as removing the smaller wheel and making the large wheel of rubber—it was still far from ideal for many who used it. The simple, traditional model has been revolutionised by a team of young Swiss inventors, who won the top prize in the Transport Category at the Beazley Designs of the Year 2017. Their brainchild is known as Sweco, a mobility vehicle which can climb stairs. This wonder-gadget has been dreamt up by 10 students in partnership with Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology.
The genius of this wheelchair is that it allows users to reach places which formerly would have been inaccessible since it has a retractable set of rubber tracks allowing the vehicle to maneuver up and down stairs. It's a true game-changer as they say. One of the designers, Thomas Gemperle, explains how the chair adapts to the angle of the steps automatically and ensures that the user is kept in a level position at all times.
Besides this revolutionary functionality which makes negotiating stairs a breeze, the Sweco also features an extra pair of wheels at the rear so that users can raise their seating level. Two large wheels additionally permit the chair to make light work of obstacles such as curbs, grass, tram tracks, and stones.
The deceptively simple lines of the wheelchair hide the ingenuity built into the device. The Sweco’s strength and agility not only make it unique, but it can also be steered by the user shifting their upper body weight, as well as using a conventional joystick. There are, in addition, some extra safety features: the special drive-train means it has a wide stand on the stairs, which makes it impossible to tip over in any direction. The tilt mechanism is so simple that it needs only one rotary joint.
The Sweco is expected to be on the market sometime this year, but at present, it is unclear what price it would retail at. Such ground-breaking technology obviously does not come cheap, so it appears that buyers may expect to pay in the region of $3000 as a minimum for the freedom and independence afforded by this ingenious mobility aid.
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