First Look

Toyota gives stair-climbing iBot wheelchair an extra boost

The automaker partnered with serial inventor Dean Kamen, creator of the Segway and the iBot, the first iteration of which fell off the market in 2009.

The iBot robotic wheelchair that can raise its rider to eye level with those standing up, and even climb stairs, just got its second chance at life by winning backing from Toyota Motor Corp.

The Japanese car maker said Saturday it is partnering with DEKA Research and Development Corp., a technology development company based in Manchester, N.H., and founded by prolific inventor Dean Kamen, to make mobility devices for the disabled community, including the iBot.

iBot is a motorized wheelchair with two sets of powered wheels that can adjust to drive up and down stairs. It also can lift users to about 6 feet high and move them in this "standing" configuration. iBot can also navigate through a variety of terrain types, including sand, grass, gravel, and steep slopes, according to DEKA.

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“The Next Generation iBOT™ Mobility System could enable a parent to visit a child’s classroom on the second floor, a co-worker to talk at eye level during a meeting, a student to visit the beach with their class, or a veteran to stand again for the Pledge of Allegiance – allowing those with mobility issues the ability to choose their activities without limitation,” writes the company online.

Mr. Kamen, who has more than 440 US and foreign patents, many of them for medical devices, brought us the Segway in 2001, a two-wheeled, motorized platform – perhaps best known in some cities for its use by groups on guided tours – that allows people to drive standing up. That invention relied on some of the technology developed for the first iteration of the iBot wheelchair, which fell off the market in 2009 partly because of its price of $25,000.

The agreement announced Saturday allows Toyota to license DEKA’s balancing technologies for medical rehabilitative therapy and “other purposes,” according to the automaker. It also helps DEKA develop and launch a new version of the iBot wheelchair.

Toyota in November said it would spend $1 billion over five years for research and development of artificial intelligence and robotics through its new Toyota Research Institute, which focuses on traffic safety and on innovation in other areas, such as elderly mobility. Gill Pratt, the former top robotics engineer for the US military who has been tapped to run the new institute, introduced Kamen to Toyota in December, according to Bloomberg.

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