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Leveling the Playing Field

Call it an advanced mobility device. Call it a personal transportation system. Call it the most sophisticated autonomous robotics system ever devised. Just don't call it a wheelchair.

Balancing on two wheels, the IBOT, brainchild of Dean Kamen '73, has placed the energetic inventor face-to-face with President Clinton and carried him, step-by-step, to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It's now ready to enable disabled people to do things and go places they never dreamed possible.

By Joan Killough-Miller, Photography by Patrick O'Connor

What if the whole world were handicapped accessible? What if a wheelchair could step over curbs, climb stairs and keep on rolling, no matter how rough the road? What if there were a wheelchair that could stand up and balance on two wheels like a person on two legs?

Dean Kamen is a master at turning "what ifs" into lucrative products. His previous inventions -- which include a miniature infusion pump for diabetics and a portable kidney dialysis machine for home use -- have made him a multimillionaire. Kamen entered WPI with the Class of 1973, but left before completing his degree. He was awarded an honorary doctor of engineering degree in 1992. His passion is finding ways to inspire American youth to pursue careers in science and engineering. To that end, he created a hands-on learning center called SEE (Science Enrichment Encounters) and a foundation called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which sponsors a national robotics competition that teams professional engineers with high school students from around the country.

Nothing pleases Kamen more than putting his resources and the talent of his company, DEKA Research & Development Corp., behind a new pet project. So when Kamen was struck, one evening, by the sight of a young man in a wheelchair unable to get over a curb at a shopping mall, his mind would not let go of that injustice. Instead of changing the world, Kamen set out to rethink the chair.

A decade later, The Independence™ 3000 IBOT™ Transporter is undergoing FDA clinical trials. Its development has captured the attention of USA Today, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, and NBC's Dateline, as well as Wired and InfoWorld. Once approved, it will be marketed by Independence Technology, a Johnson & Johnson company that has been working in cooperation with DEKA, with a $100 million investment from the health care giant. When the IBOT is rolled out--possibly later this year--it will open the door to new freedom for millions of wheelchair users and glide into a $2 billion global market.

Although the concept of a chair on wheels is ancient, the basic design has changed little over the centuries. Most innovations in chair design have been spearheaded by users -- in collaboration with their engineer friends. These advances include the first folding wheelchair in 1932, and chairs adapted for racing and basketball in the 1960s. Power-operated chairs are also benefiting from new materials and technology that make them lighter and more maneuverable. A few have been developed to scale curbs or boost the user to a standing elevation, but balance and weight become challenging considerations when an adult is raised to full height.

Kamen's IBOT doesn't just replace two legs with four wheels. It performs like the human body -- using motors and wheels to do the work of muscle and bone, while a series of gyroscopes and electronic sensors carry out the advanced balance and positioning responses of the nervous system. Three Pentium-class processors act together as a brain, receiving up to 10,000 messages per second. To ensure the safety of their responses, two of the three processors must approve a given action. (Similar technology is "under the hood" of Kamen's recently unveiled Segway Human Transporter(TM). In fact, the IBOT code name, Fred, reveals its close relationship to the Segway, which was previously known only as Ginger or IT.)

The technology that Kamen and his engineers developed for the IBOT, particularly the systems that enable the machine to balance on two wheels and "walk" up stairs, were put to use, as well, in the new Segway Human Transporter, the revolutionary "enhancement to personal mobility" that was unveiled in January.

On the ground, the IBOT doesn't look much different from the typical motorized chair. For all its high-tech powers, the IBOT is actually a bit smaller and narrower. What's revolutionary -- figuratively and literally -- is the action of the double set of rear wheels.

Three flights up by elevator at DEKA's Manchester, N.H., research facility is a secure-access laboratory code-named "Easy Street." It is actually a real-world chamber of horrors for a non-ambulatory person. Here, DEKA technicians and people with disabilities ranging from gunshot wounds to Parkinson's disease have pitted the IBOT against obstacles that would stop an ordinary wheelchair in its tracks.

Kamen is in his element as he demonstrates his creation, seated smugly atop this whirring mechanical throne. In Standard Function, he can do up to eight miles per hour -- a moderate speed for runners. "I could have made it faster," he jokes, "but they wouldn't let me." With a touch of the armrest controls, he shifts into 4-wheel drive and cruises through pits of sand and gravel. Curbs, cobblestones -- even a bumpy flagstone path -- are no challenge for the IBOT.

As Kamen switches to Balance Function, one set of rear wheels tucks up over the other, elevating vertically challenged Kamen to a standing height of six feet. His single-axle stance looks as precarious as a unicycle rider's, but Kamen crosses his arms and challenges visitors -- able bodied and wheelchair warriors alike -- to knock him over.

For the grand finale, Kamen rides over to a flight of stairs and leans against the chair's backrest. In Stair Function, the IBOT backs up the stairs with the two sets of rear wheels rotating around each other. It looks perilous, but Kamen's seated figure remains steady as the wheels bump along. At the top of the stairs he pauses, then rolls down again, spreading his arms in a triumphant gesture, asking, "What else do you need to know?"

It looks like magic -- and Kamen delights in telling observers that, technically, it is. The balance problem stymied him for some time, but the key to a solution came in a flash, when he slipped in the shower, then asked himself how he recovered without falling. The image of his spinning arms inspired the gyroscopic technology that balances the IBOT. It is programmed to mimic what the human does without thinking. For example, when the head gets too far ahead of the body, the feet instinctively shuffle forward to keep up.

"Magic" is about as technical as Kamen will get by way of an explanation of the IBOT's inner workings. His engineers -- who include 11 WPI alumni -- are guarded when answering questions about design details. Russ Beavis '94, who joined DEKA after graduation, worked on the IBOT project as a subsystem leader of the sensor design team. He says that secrecy during the design phase made him feel isolated from the rest of the company.

"The IBOT development group was always seen as a 'black hole' that engineers would enter but never leave," he says. "But on a more positive note, the IBOT development facilities have been compared favorably to James Bond's gadget gurus' labs. The excitement level has always been high." The challenge of integrating so many subsystems from the different engineering disciplines was great, but Beavis takes pride in knowing that the IBOT, like all of DEKA's products, will have such a profound effect on so many lives. "We never have to think about whether our products are valuable," he says.

The seeming insurmountable task of making a six-legged chair climb stairs fell to another WPI alumnus, Kurt Heinzmann '86. Heinzmann joined DEKA in 1992, after meeting Kamen during the first FIRST competition. Kamen hired Heinzmann away from WPI's MEAC (Manufacturing Engi-neering Applications Center), much to the chagrin of former president Jon C. Strauss. Heinzmann was the first engineer hired to work full time on the IBOT and has had a hand in all of the propulsion and control systems. Conquering the stair-climbing problems was a very creative, fun period in DEKA's history, he recalls.

"There are several possible approaches," Heinzmann elaborates. "One obvious one is some kind of anthropomorphic design -- that is, something resembling the biological way of doing things, such as legs that articulate just like a human's. Then, of course, there are others that are more like a wheeled vehicle."

The chosen stair-climbing strategy also had to be easy for a wheelchair user to control. The perfect solution lay in a serendipitous side effect of the balance control scheme. "We had already figured out how to get the device to maintain balance on two wheels," says Heinzmann. "So one day we thought we'd try using the same scheme for rotating the whole cluster of wheels around each other, instead of just rotating the wheels that were in contact with the ground."

In stair mode, the IBOT responds the same way that it does in balance mode. If the rider leans back, the wheels rotate backwards to keep the point of contact under the center of mass. Lean forward, and the chair "walks" down the stairs. It takes a bit of practice, says Heinzmann, but it's not difficult to learn. "It's a lot less scary when you're in the seat than it looks to an observer," he says. "It's a very reassuring-feeling machine."

Making the IBOT safe for even the most fragile users was an unprecedented technical challenge. "This is, without a doubt, the most grueling project we've worked on," says Kamen. "In Balance Function, there's nothing between you and the road but software. Imagine your 80-year-old grandmother up there."

Although in demonstrations it looks like athletic Kamen is reaching back to pull the IBOT up the stairs, he notes that using the IBOT takes little strength or range of motion. An extremely weak or unstable user could have an attendant guide the chair from behind. "In assist mode, a 90-pound woman could get her 240-pound husband up the stairs, when properly trained," says Kamen. The durability of the IBOT has also been severely tested. "We've dropped it off curbs and down stairs and it doesn't bend. We just hose it down and move on," Kamen says. "Our goal was to build a machine that would go five years without any of the major systems needing replacement, and we've done that."

Future versions of the IBOT may offer head- and mouth-operated controls for quadriplegic users who cannot use hand controls, and a smaller, lighter model for children and small adults is in the works. A proprietary vendor is working on puncture-proof pneumatic tires, to alleviate the thorn in the side of all wheelchair users. Heinzmann and others on the team continue to work on design improvements to bring down the weight and cost.

Although 200 pounds may sound heavy to a manual chair user who is used to tossing her 26-pound Quickie ultralight chair into her car, Kamen contends that the IBOT's capabilities make its weight irrelevant. "What does your Buick weigh?" he counters. "You don't care, because you don't have to lift it. You don't carry the IBOT, it carries you. It lifts itself. It even puts itself away." Using the removable control panel as a remote, the IBOT could be commanded to climb a ramp into its user's van.

Price may be a bigger issue to consumers and funding sources such as private insurance and Medicaid. The IBOT's projected selling price of $25,000 may seem high (manual chairs start in the hundreds and motorized chairs in the thousands), but some highly specialized power chairs can cost up to $20,000. The IBOT would save users the cost of renovating their homes to accommodate a standard wheelchair. But, given the sophistication of the technology, Kamen thinks the IBOT is a bargain. "You're looking at the most sophisticated autonomous robotics system in existence," he says. By comparison, an industrial robot capable of only a single task -- such as painting parts on an assembly line -- might have a price tag of $2 million, he says. "Here is a Class III medical device that can carry a human payload over all conditions, and it will be on the market for one percent of the cost of a typical robot."

For a person who moves through the world seated at 39 inches, the ability to stand at adult height may be priceless. Kamen is succinct about the IBOT's most important ability. "If you're in a bar with friends, you're not looking at belt buckles," he says. "The hell with everything else -- it's putting people at eye level that matters." It is this experience, of being tall again and approaching others face to face and eye to eye, that seems to be most moving to disabled people who have tested the IBOT.

Kamen registers no pity or sentimentality toward the people who will be helped by his invention. He fits perfectly the profile of inventors cast by journalist John Hockenberry, himself a paraplegic, who interviewed Kamen and test-drove the IBOT on a 1999 edition of NBC's Dateline. In his memoir, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence, Hockenberry wrote, "Inventors weren't shy about disability, because they saw the physical details as an interesting problem in engineering. As long as the wheelchair said tragedy, everyone was inclined to stare and look away." By contrast, Hockenberry writes that his inventor friends saw his wheelchair as just another opportunity for applying ingenuity -- "an uncharted reservoir" in the "vast ocean of unmet needs."

When Dean Kamen went to Washington in 2000 to accept the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest technological award, he paid a visit to the Oval Office and came face to face with President Bill Clinton while seated in the IBOT.

DEKA personnel will swiftly correct anyone who refers to the IBOT as a wheelchair. Johnson & Johnson promotes it as an "advanced mobility system." Kamen seems to relate to the IBOT as neither a medical device, a machine, nor a high-tech servant. He speaks of his invention almost as if it were a pal -- a high-energy, fun-loving, high-living adventurer, not unlike himself. The IBOT often accompanies him on business travel.

It has also been to Tokyo and Washington, D.C. Last year it went to the White House, where its owner received the National Medal of Technology.

It's not every wheelchair that sports a bumper sticker boasting that it climbed the Eiffel Tower. While in town for an international robotics expo, Kamen and the IBOT did some sightseeing, rode the Paris Metro and enjoyed an elegant dinner. At 2 a.m., neither Kamen nor IBOT were tired, so they went dancing at a French discotheque. Hours later, the IBOT was still rolling, but Kamen took it back to the hotel room to recharge. The IBOT's advanced nickel cadmium battery system will run all day after 4-6 hours of charging. A lighter, cheaper, higher-capacity battery system that is now being explored at DEKA will likely spawn a new technology with much wider applications.

Scientific American cited Kamen's IBOT as one of only three examples of advanced robots that the public will be likely to see in real life, soon. Not content with conquering curbstones and staircase, Kamen is still consumed by the challenge of mimicking -- and exceeding -- the human organism's natural abilities. "Five years from today," he predicts, "you're going to see this machine on a basketball court. Five years from today this machine will outrun and outmaneuver and be more stable than a human being. It will surpass humans in every aspect of balancing ability."

But, one senses, it will never out-think Kamen.

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