Power Chair Update: Electronics Enter a New Era

A year ago, power wheelchair technology was poised on the threshold of a new horizon, thanks to major technological advances in electronics and driving controls. A year later, the cool new stuff that was shown in prototype form at Medtrade 2005 and other events is here for real — and ready to be enjoyed by both users and suppliers. Invacare (MK6i), Quantum Rehab (Q-Logic) and Sunrise Medical (Delphi) all have newly available electronics systems in their various power chair lines.

Along with being easy to program, use and maintain, the prototype systems seen last year also had world domination in mind — or at least the option of giving end-users more control over their immediate environments by enabling them to change TV channels or dim lights via their power chairs.

As power chair electronics continue to evolve to new levels, we asked Frank Matheis, of Curtis Instruments, a manufacturer of motor control systems for power chairs and scooters, what suppliers and end-users can expect from this latest generation of electronics.

Mobility Management: After this year's Medtrade, we talked to suppliers about what got their attention at the show, and they mentioned controllers. Attendees were excited for two reasons: What controllers are going to be able to do as far as increased functionality, and at the same time, that controllers are going to be easier to use for the end-user, and easier to work with for the supplier. Do you agree with that assessment?

Frank Matheis: I agree with all of that. What really gives the user of the chair power and control is the motor speed controller, the vehicle control system. It's a whole system, really. You have an electric motor that generates power, but that power is not manageable without some means of giving the user the ability to accelerate, decelerate, turn — and that's what the controller does.

What has happened with Curtis Instruments and I think all the producers of similar technology is that (manufacturers) are really closely paying attention to the needs of the people who are using the chairs, what they're facing in their daily lives and what their needs are. What those needs are, first of all: Ergonomics. You want to have an easy-to-use joystick or sip-and-puff system. You want the power to make it up any hill and over gravel. And to be able to see and use interfaces in a friendly kind of way, and to use technology in a positive kind of way.

What it comes down to is power and control. It's not power and control of the technology, but power and control of the user. All of the (manufacturers) are designing toward that objective, and the technology keeps advancing.

MM: At the same time, it seems manufacturers are keeping an eye on cost, so that these high-functioning control systems are also accessible to as many end-users as possible who need them. Do you think the access bar is coming down, so that more people will have access to this technology?

FM: It is. And what that means is full programmability, full functionality, wide-ranging features that encompass all the kinds of things you could imagine. Everything from seat actuators to moving seats up and down to adjusting how much torque you need and how much speed you need. That's crucial. If you're a person living in San Francisco, and you're confronting hills every day, you're going to have different needs than someone living in Kansas, who has to go over a gravel driveway. In order to really make a chair fit, you need to be able to adjust and configure the chair to the user and to user's operations. That in the past was only in the sphere of the high-end rehab chairs.

MM: So now, these controllers with increased functionality are going to be available to more people across the country and be easier for more suppliers to not only program the chairs, but also program more specifically to each user's needs?

FM: Exactly. And for less money. You get all that (increased functionality) for the same or less money than it cost five years ago. When you take away the controller and the vehicle control systems, what you have is a very comfortable chair, beautiful wheels and an electric motor. The real control system in the joystick, the power module and any kind of interface you might have on the back of the chair — an attendant control, perhaps. That is the core of what will make the difference in the chair. When all things come together, when every single component on the chair is well thought-out — they move people in a positive way.

MM: Are consumers looking also for more control from their wheelchairs, even when it comes to things beyond their wheelchairs, such as adjusting the thermostat in the house, or opening curtains?

FM: Definitely. With an infrared device, being able to switch on the lights or the television or computers — all of that is converging into the control systems. Depending on the kind of systems they're buying, these are features that are now commonly built into various control systems.

MM: So that's something that you're considering when you're building these systems? Not only controlling the wheelchair, but also possibly controlling the environment?

FM: To whatever degree feasible… that's when you get into the features that are optional or some insurance companies may not want to participate in. But to a much, much greater degree, if you're looking into the future and what it will bring, certainly every manufacturer is looking into the environment of the user, and what will make it easier and beneficial.

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