Danielle Kent rode her wheelchair toward a black ramp at the Las Vegas Convention Center, where CES is taking place. She gently pressed on a small controller on the right armrest before the powered wheelchair went over a 3-inch bump to climb the incline. Seconds later, Kent made a smooth turn onto a stone-covered path. The personal vehicle, designed by a wheelchair-making company called Whill, navigated the bumpy end of the ramp with ease.
More than two million people rely on wheelchairs in the US alone. Still, accessibility vehicles like wheelchairs have seen little improvements over the years. While some companies have been building powerful machines that can help people with disabilities navigate the streets, most electric wheelchairs continue to be too bulky for public doorways and tend to get stuck on turns and rough surfaces. The limitations keep many manual wheelchair users from switching over to powered machines. The latest model from Whill, however, is designed to instill confidence in the users so that they're able to move independently.
Model M is an all-terrain personal electric vehicle with omni-wheels and a sturdy build. It enables people with multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries to use the same machine both indoors and outdoors. According to Kent, the director of product marketing at Whill, the new design takes up almost the same amount of room as her old manual wheelchair. The compact machine pushes the wheelchair to run at three speed modes plus a stationary mode that keeps it stable in case someone knocks into it. But that's not all the machine will do.
The company also has plans to introduce autonomous driving for people with disabilities, suggesting the built-in software has the potential to evolve as driverless technologies become more capable of moving wheelchairs. Additionally, Whill has a mobile app in the making that will wirelessly help control navigation for safer mobility.