The Argonault Wheelchair - the most versatile mobility aid ever?

Vladimir Ivanchenko is nothing if not direct. During a cross Atlantic Skype conversation, the Russian engineer expat to Canada speaks very directly about the Argonault Power Wheelchair, designed by Vladimir himself. This is his entry in the Blackwood Design Awards, hoping to win top prize in the ‘Best New Concept’ category.

 

The Wheelchair has many extraordinary features that barely make it a chair at all in a sense; more of an all-purpose mobility/travel device. Equipped to go up and down steps, in and out of (certain) cars, rise up to the highest shelves as well as crouch down almost to floor level, there isn’t a lot it can’t do in terms of functionality as Vladimir is eager to stress. One feature in particular that will likely strike a chord is the wheelchair’s ability to go up and down pavement edges.

 

Just watch this video to get an idea of what it can do. Oh and by the way, there are functioning prototypes:

In a brochure produced by Argonault it is claimed that the wheelchair “…outperforms the majority of purpose-specific devices:

  • allows the user to ascend and descend from a range of surface levels
  • allows user to step over different kinds of obstacles such as curbs, logs, and fences
  • allows user to overcome surfaces covered with snow mounds, sand, and other rough terrain
  • prevents bedsores and improves blood circulation
  • allows the user to look eye to eye with a standing person and reach objects placed on a higher level by increasing the height of the chair to the desired level
  • ability to lower chair to reach objects on the floor
  • allows user the ability to approach tables, washroom sinks, and other surfaces with a space beneath
  • ability to overcome any surfaces with a slope and prevents the chair from falling in all directions;
  • user can move from a bed to the PWC without any mechanical lifts and physical assistance
  • allows the user to take care of their own medical and hygiene needs anywhere without physical and technical assistance
  • user can drive or be a passenger in an unmodified/conversion vehicle”

Meanwhile it states that the “manoeuvrability, power, speed, control methods are the same as in the existing wheelchairs.”

 

What are your thoughts on the above? Can it really work? Or has the design team missed a point? Will you be rooting for this wheelchair to win the ‘Best New Concept’ in the Blackwood Design Awards 2016?

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Watch a short video about last year's BDA winner - the S'up Spoon


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Lots of questions about battery type, range, comfort and durability to be asked and answered ... as well as the question of how adjustable the device would be to different body sizes and types.

But in essence - as a concept - if this thing gets made and proves practical and durable and comfortable ... Iwannaone!

George

Hi George,

Thanks for asking some very good questions. I've asked Vladimir to answer in person to ensure you get it straight from the horses mouth.

Paul

Thanks Paul - I look forward to seeing Vladimir's reply. Now I live in rural France I can best describe the mobility scene (obstacles!) here as like going back to 1950s Britain. Steps and obstacles abound, ramps are rarely seen in public and pavements can very often be narrow and high - where a ramp may be present it might have a diagonal 45 degree approach and be better thought of as a short ski-slope than an accessibility aid. In other words, more likely to tip you and your wheelchair into the gutter (or beneath passing traffic) than assist onward progress.

So, though I have flat, open-plan spacious living and have cars and wheelchairs to get me to any town I care to visit, just getting from a parking place and into a shop, cafe or restaurant can be an impossible logistical challenge.

Don't even get me started on access to a loo! Maybe Vladimir has some answers to that too :) (No, I don't expect an answer!)

So, a mobility device that can climb the steps so beloved of French shopkeepers and architects is certainly of interest. The same comments apply to French houses -  though we have plenty of friends willing to reciprocate lunch and dinner invitations it's usually impossible to access their unadapted homes.

Deep gravel is another problem here. It's a cheap and easy solution to driveways and parking areas. But even a chair as big and powerful as the two I have for outdoor use get bogged down within a metre or two of driving over the stuff. I would be interested to see how Vladimir's design copes with deep gravel and sand (30-40 cm deep is not uncommon here) as the small front and rear wheels shown on his design resemble those of my Quickie Salsa M ... which can't manage even a foot of progress on gravel.

I do like the apparent ground clearance shown in the concept. This is an aspect so many wheelchair designs get wrong. Even a door threshold can beach many 'chairs as, though the front wheels (mid, rear or front wheel drive) can manage a few cm of aluminium or steel obstacle, a battery box that crashes down on the metal not only damages the door frame but does a very effective job of stranding the occupant of the 'chair.

Final query (lest I hog the discussion) .. I can see no sign of suspension on the concept design. Ask any wheelchair user and they'll tell you that any chair without suspension is not only going to be unusably painful to ride but will also beach itself, end up with one or more wheels 'cocked' in the air (and no effective drive) or tip its user out as it careers down an odd-angled slope. For example, my "lawn" looks like a bowling green from a distance (because the grass is cut to a uniform height) but the ground is closer to a newly ploughed field. A 'chair with the range of suspension travel of a Salsa M (6 wheeled like the concept) will quickly run out of suspension range and either dig its footplates (and probably my feet) into a rut or do the classic mid-drive trick of suspending the drive wheels in mid-air while the outrider wheels act as nice bridge supports.

The real world isn't made of 90 degree angles on steps and pavements as the concept video shows. It's 45 degree slopes, rutted ground and deep gravel that stop wheelchair users (literally) in our tracks. To be real-world usable, a design has to tackle the wide range of surfaces that confront us every day.

George

Sorry - another thought ... the article says "user can drive or be a passenger in an unmodified/conversion vehicle" which begs the question, how is the chair restrained inside the car? A "conventional" drive-from-wheelchair design may use a locking pin-and-slot device to hold the chair in place while the car's usual seatbelts secure the occupant.

In a wheelchair design such as this with no chassis, how will the chair be secured to pass crash safety standards?

All questions offered as helpful - in case it's not obvious. As I first said, I think the design is one of the most original I've seen in years and needs to be congratulated.

George

Hi George

Being a French native myself I agree that generally speaking it is a little behind the UK in terms of accessibility. This being said I didn't realise it's quite to the level you depict.

Lots of good questions and points there George. The car one is something I'm a little unclear on myself. From the animation it looks like the car has no front seat, which would certainly make it an adapted car. 

Here's the bit where it becomes obvious that I'm not a wheelchair user - the thought of suspension never even crossed my mind. Maybe Vladimir can address that point.

Paul

Hi Paul,

Here is not the place for a deep discussion of French attitudes to disability and mobility - I'll just say it's a long time (ie; never before) that a shop assistant has demanded to know why I'm "out on my own" and "why my supervisor is not with me"! Happens in France.

There are big discrepancies in France between the situation in major cities and the smaller towns and villages throughout the majority rural parts of the country. Bordeaux - our nearest large city has good accessibility. Much of the city centre has been pedestrianised or traffic-restricted and it has superb, modern trams that are full wheelchair accessible across their entire length - no searching for "the special door" that opens on to the single, already occupied wheelchair space.

But even where the city council has gone to the trouble and expense of flattening the streets, large shop chains (who should know better - or at least comply with the law) refit a shop ... and place a 20cm high step across its entrance! Even the Galleries Lafayette (big department store) has only one pokey accessible entrance - and no accessible loo!

Many smaller stores are fronted with 20cm high steps - and though most will have some form of ramp tucked away in a store room somewhere - you first have to negotiate the step to get in the store to ask someone to bring out the ramp! Or - as obviously expected - have a "supervisor" with you to do the asking for you. Perhaps 1 shop in a hundred will have a bell-push for wheelchair users to summon a member of staff - but then I've seen these bell-pushes placed so high that no wheelchair could reach them unless their chair is fitted with a lift!

Beyond the immediate city centre, matters rapidly become drastically awful. Eg; our favourite restaurant, Garopapilles (https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Garopapilles/@44.8419292,-0.584...!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0xd5527e781a43bad:0xda2bc0fd98a15fad!8m2!3d44.8419254!4d-0.5827329) is fully accessible but is on a side street about 100m from Place Gambetta - one of the city's main squares.

To get to the restaurant involves negotiating pavements barely wider than my smallest wheelchair with several of those 45 degree diagonal "dropped kerbs" along the short route.

I usually take my chances on the road - dodging between the line of parked cars and the busy city traffic - and about the third attempt will see me up one of the ski-slopes and on the pavement near the restaurant.

Out here in the countryside the access situation is - well - just random. We live in a community of just 120 people spread across about 100 sq Km of countryside. Our village Mairie ("Town Hall") is FULLY accessible and has one of the best accessible loos I've come across in France. It's almost worth visiting just to admire what can be done! :)

In contrast, our nearest town for supermarket, bank etc. is a real mixed bag. Again, the local council has done a fair job of installing usable dropped kerbs and levelling the pedestrianised parts of the town. But shopkeepers, cafes and restaurants - even when refitting premises anew - insist on putting in a 20cm high step at the threshold. Again, most will have a ramp somewhere - if you can find a passer-by to go in and ask for it. Why the shopkeepers won't just put these ramps out when they open the shop and leave them till closing time is beyond my brain. To be fair, one or two do - but they are greatly the exception.

I could continue to give you example after example until I've written a disability guide to France that would dissuade any wheelchair user from coming here. But - while such a report would be objectively accurate - I don't want to dissuade anyone - whatever their abilities - from coming to this lovely country.

Just be aware that it ain't Berlin - you will be denied access to the majority of smaller (and some larger) public shops and buildings, getting around the streets many times presents insurmountable problems (I have more than once been forced to find a way to turn round and retrace perhaps a couple of Km of city to get where I need to be via a different route). Arriving in a rural town for the first time, it may take quite a bit of driving around before you can find somewhere suitable to drop a wheelchair out of your car and be able to get to a shop or cafe or whatever. Finding an accessible cafe to get that drink you need may also take quite a bit of hunting down - most are inaccessible!

I'll end with a finale that perhaps sums up the French attitude to disability (and may open your French ex-pat eyes!) The regional health office (CPAM) main building for our departement remains INACCESSIBLE to wheelchairs (even if you have a "supervisor" with you) - even though the law in France states that ALL public buildings must be wheelchair accessible ... since 2009!!

When registering my French residency and applying for my Carte Vitale (call it the French NHS card for anyone who doesn't know the system here) I had to sit alone in a car park, moving from time to time as cars came and went - while my wife went into the building and explained in pidgin French that yes, the application was for her husband and no, he couldn't come to the desk to sign the necessary (this is France) sheafs of paperwork as he couldn't physically get into the building.

One final piece of information. My GP's surgery sits on a main road in the local "county town" (sub-prefecteure - whose own public administrative offices are inaccessible). The surgery has no wheelchair access AT ALL and a 20cm step at its main door. The pavement it fronts on to is so narrow that even when I took my own portable ramp there wasn't space to place the ramp and get wheelchair from pavement on to ramp.

So, while I am completely willing and able (well, most of the time) to visit my doctor at his surgery, he has the pleasure of a 30 minute drive each way across beautiful French countryside to visit me at home whenever my prescriptions need renewing or I need a quick MOT.

As frequent visitors to France in the years between me becoming a wheelchair user and our moving here my wife and I knew and understood very well what we were moving to so don't read this as any form of complaint.

But I stand by the statement that for much of France, it's like moving back in time to the 1950s - both in terms of accessibility and the (occasional, I must make clear) attitude towards disabled people in general.

That said, we wouldn't live anywhere else. All of life is compromise - and there are more than enough positives to life in France to compensate for the need for the occasional Gallic shrug and a "ho hum - time to try a different approach".

George

StepRover will also be compatible with all accessories and options available on the market

Hello  George,

Thank you for your interest in our device.

We have the technology and fully functional StepRover prototypes. We are seeking relationships with manufacturers that are capable of developing and mass producing this product.

Currently, it is hard to estimate the date, when StepRover-based wheelchairs will appear on the market. It is pivotal for us to find and cooperate with producers, capable of working with this engineering platform. After a business proposal is made to a manufacturer, it might take months for the manufacturer to assess this opportunity. And even if the proposal is accepted it might take a few months until the manufacturer shapes our StepRover into a final product. However, no matter what, we will do our best to bring closer the day when StepRover-based wheelchairs will be available on the market. 

The projected manufacturing price of StepRover-based wheelchairs will be around US$10,000. The exact price of a final product will be available after a manufacturer finishes the final design of the device.

Hello Vladimir,

Thank you for explaining the stage of development of your project. I wish you well in finding a company to engineer the device for production and engage in its marketing and distribution.

From the link you provided to the parts compatible with your design, it seems you are already aware of Chinese and other Far Eastern manufacturers of wheelchair parts.

Though I couldn't (and won't for several reasons) recommend the company, I recently bought a compact, folding wheelchair from the Malaysian manufacturer Wheelchair888. The chair uses compact direct-drive motors (of the type I suspect your design will need) and light-weight, high energy density lithium polymer batteries that provide the 'chair with a realistic >30Km range on a single charge. The chair itself folds like a baby's pushchair and, weighing ~25Kg complete with batteries, can be picked up by one person (my wife in my case!) and put into the boot (trunk) of an unmodified car.

I tell you this, not to point you at the company (with whom my only relationship is as a slightly disgruntled customer) but to say that there are clearly companies in that region with the engineering skills, manufacturing capability and bravery to use new technology (I am not alone in asking why established wheelchair manufacturers insist on using Victorian lead-acid batteries and old-fashioned, heavy, geared motors).

I would love to think that your product could be sold at the price you mention but as wheelchairs with a fraction of the mechanical (and, it follows, electrical and computational) complexity of your design are currently sold at prices higher than you mention I can only cross my fingers and hope you find someone with both the engineering ability and manufacturing/marketing/distribution relationships to volume produce your device at that price point. If you succeed I believe you will find a very welcoming market.

I would still like to hear the answers to the questions I posed. If nothing else, if your product is to succeed it will have to prove at least as practical as current products at the basics of wheelchair use. Innovation alone will not see your product succeed in the market if it is a "one trick pony" - eg; it's great at climbing up and down stairs but can't get across a bumpy field or causes the user pain or worse when driven along typical city streets. Equally, your design must accommodate a wide range of body sizes and disabilities if you are to find customers for it. The design clearly cannot be adapted by the usual "just throw another cushion or two on the seat" method relied on by many - as those cushions would negate the folding/unfolding aspect of your design. You have to find a better way of adapting the design to persons of different heights, body weights and capabilities.

I would also suggest that you clearly separate the design objectives of your project from what may be viewed as attributes or functions you have already found a way to provide. The link you provide to the Van Products website is a case in point. Both the virtual mock up of your design and the prototypes shown in your video lack the necessary low mounting points from which to fix a "pin" used by a conventional "drive from wheelchair" car lock-down mount (of the type shown on the Van Products web site). That leaves only the "four point tie-down" method - ie the 'chair has to be located in the car using four nylon webbing straps and hooks. This is not only impossible for a seated user to perform, this method would not pass European or U.S. crash testing requirements for a drive from seat wheelchair. Nor would it be possible to have a vehicle adaptation specialist construct a raised floor so that one of the automatic locking devices could be used - as, not only would such a structure be unlikely to be crash-worthy unless very well engineered and, in Europe at least, the modified floor design would have to be type approved (a HUGELY time consuming and expensive process) for EVERY model of car that was wanted to carry your chair - an inconceivably possible process.

You might want to look at some of the German company, Alber's designs because I can think of one or two of their products that share attributes with your design and they must have solved several of the questions I am asking you (well enough, by the way, that I dearly wish I could have bought one of their products - only its inability to fit in any car I was prepared to drive stopped my purchase). I believe the Alber company is now owned or part of the Invacare Group of companies.

Please don't take these comments as negative criticism. Your design is truly innovative and solves a number of very real, very practical and very everyday problems that confront wheelchair users. But if you are to turn idea into product, you will have to raise capital and find the engineering and marketing resources you need to make that happen.

I believe you will be confronted by questions identical or very similar to the ones I am asking at every stage of that journey towards a product you could put in a store - hopefully for someone like me to buy.

I wish you all success with taking your project forward and will watch for the day when your product comes to market.

George

George

Once again thank you for your detailed comments.

Here is a link to our web site.

http://www.argonault.com/  or
http://steprover.com/

They can see the work of the first prototypes.

And if you have the desire and the opportunity to participate in the commercialization, contact me please.

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