A wheelchair for the adventurous

Toyota Motor Corp, which last year kicked off a $1b robotics and artificial intelligence initiative, has announced plans to partner with Dean Kamen's Deka Research and Development to produce a new and improved version of Kamen's 1999 iBot, a four-wheel-drive motorised wheelchair capable of traversing rough terrain and even climbing stairs. Former licensee Johnson & Johnson produced the chair from 2003 until 2009; its discontinuation was decried by its fans — and by robotics enthusiasts, who envisioned using the iBot's versatile drive system as base for a highly capable domestic droid. (Citing restrictions related to US government certification, Johnson & Johnson never sold the platform to roboticists). 

Upwardly mobile

The Toyota/Deka mobility machine's marquee talent is its ability to "stand" on two wheels, giving the user extra height to reach, say, kitchen cabinets or books on a shelf. The standing configuration also allows the user to feel less chair-bound by offering eye-level interaction with standing adults. To achieve the increased seat height, the machine shifts its articulated four-wheel chassis, lifting its front axle and balancing on its two rear tyres.

Segway segue

If the iBot's two-wheel self-balancing function seems familiar, that’s because the chair's Kamen-invented gyroscopic innards inspired another mobility device, that darling of mall cops and beach tourists everywhere, the Segway transporter. (During development, the iBot's internal nickname was "Fred" — as in Astaire; the original Segway's was — you guessed it — "Ginger".)

What will it cost?

Toyota and DEKA haven’t announced pricing for iBot 2.0, but the original version commanded a very steep $25,000. A typical motorised wheelchair, in comparison, costs about $3,500.

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