Four-wheel drive for wheelchairs

The Galileo Wheel is a robust device that allows automatic back and forth conversation between wheel, track, and stair climbing configurations.An Israeli start-up has developed a wheelchair that could offer millions of severely disabled Americans a whole new experience of …

The Galileo Wheel is a robust device that allows automatic back and forth conversation between wheel, track, and stair climbing configurations.An Israeli start-up has developed a wheelchair that could offer millions of severely disabled Americans a whole new experience of freedom and independence.

The wheelchair, created by Galileo Mobility Instruments, allows disabled users like quadriplegics to go for walks in the countryside, have picnics on the beach, to get in and out of a car alone, to reach high shelves, climb and descend stairs unassisted, and even to lower themselves to the floor to play with their children.

“It’s the four-wheel drive of wheelchairs,” says Avishay Novoplanski, one of Galileo’s founders. “It offers the handicapped a measure of independence that was never possible before.”

The technology behind this new wheelchair was developed by Novoplanski and Gil Michaeli. The two men came up with an idea to develop a new system, the Galileo Wheel, which combines a tire and a track in one vehicle. The Galileo Wheel is a robust device that allows automatic back and forth conversation between wheel, track, and stair climbing configurations. Users can benefit from all the traditional qualities of a wheel, but can also, when the occasion demands, use traction as well.

Most of the time, wheels are the perfect means of getting about. But in certain situations, such as rough and slippery terrain, snow, or in the face of an obstacle, track is the only solution. “There are so many vehicles, like tractors, all-terrain vehicles, tanks, and snowmobiles that have track rather than wheels, and yet they only need that track for specific short periods,” says Novoplanski. “The majority of the time they could use wheels, which are far more efficient and comfortable. Track causes a lot of problems.”

With this concept in mind, the two men began work on the project while they were still studying. Novoplanski, who is 38, studied industrial design engineering at the Bezalel College in Jerusalem, while Michaeli (32) studied engineering at Zur Industrial University in northern Israel.

In 1999, after completing their studies, the two men established Galileo and set to work to create their new track-wheel. Since they were founded, the company has received a total of $2 million in financing from private investors and the Office of the Chief Scientist.

The wheelchair, which is still at the prototype stage, is the company’s first project. According to market researchers, Frost and Sullivan, about 50,000 powered wheelchairs are sold in the U.S. every year. This is an annual market of about $320 million in the U.S., a figure that is matched in Europe.

Powered wheelchairs are designed for disabled people with severe handicaps. Normally users who can steer or push themselves about, will opt for a manual wheelchair.

Top-of-the-line powered wheelchairs enable users to lower or raise themselves into a specially adapted car, go up and down curbs, and to climb stairs with the aid of a handrail. Whether they are climbing or descending the stairs, the user can only face downwards. “You have to invest a lot of force to go up and down the stairs, but most powered wheel chair users cannot move their upper body at all,” says Michaeli. “If they could, they wouldn’t be in a powered wheelchair in the first place.”

Galileo’s electronic wheelchair, however, is the same dimension and weight as a usual powered wheelchair, but it lets users go over obstacles and all types of terrain, and to climb stairs facing the direction in which they are going. It does not require a handrail or any other type of assistance. It can also tilt the user to a standing position, or to a reclining position.

“You can control the wheelchair by the zip and puff system, with just a straw in your mouth,” says Michaeli. “It does not require any movement from your upper body or hands.”

“The benefits are very clear,” adds Novoplanski. “A user can do far more things than ever before, without any need for assistance.”

Michaeli believes that some manual wheelchair users will buy a Galileo chair for vacations or for leisure purposes such as walks in the countryside. “With our wheelchair they can very easily reach anywhere,” he says.

Another benefit, says Michaeli, is price. He reckons that the Galileo wheelchair will ultimately go on sale for between $10,000-$13,000. Traditional powered wheelchairs cost anything between $5,000-20,000, while the nearest competing wheelchair, the iBot 3000 mobility system by Independence Technology, a Johnson and Johnson company, has a price tag of $29,000.

Aside from the wheelchair, the three-man company is also developing a number of other applications using its core technology.

The first is a highly maneuverable autonomous robot for observation, intelligence and information gathering, which is based on the same transport mechanism as the wheel chair. Galileo is now working jointly with the Technion in Haifa, and the Israel Defense Force (IDF), which is financing the project. The robot can be equipped with cameras or detection sensors for a range of tasks.

The company is also working on a stair climber, a device that will allow a porter or a worker to shift heavy weights up and down the stairs. This could be used for anything ranging from heavy boxes, to a handicapped person in a wheelchair, or an elderly person on a chair.

The company is also examining the potential of developing agricultural products.

Though Galileo first began working on the wheelchair, the military robot is expected to be ready within three to four months, and Gil estimates that within a year, the company could win an order from the IDF. The company intends to approach the U.S. market with this robotic device as soon as it is completed.

The wheelchair will take longer to reach the market. Galileo is now looking for a strategic investor who will invest a further $2m. in developing and marketing the product.

“We need a strategic industry partner to help us take our device from the prototype stage to the final product,” says Michaeli. “We have a prototype that proves our technology works, but in order to put a real user in it we have to invest more money and to solve issues related to the product. We are not in the marketing business, we are into development.”

Once financing has been received, Novoplanski estimates that the first configuration of the wheelchair could reach the market within a year.

The company is also looking for $250,000 to complete the stair climber product. With this money, Novoplanski believes that the product could be out on the market within six months.

Aside from the hunt for financial backing, Galileo’s biggest problem is its competition. In the wheelchair market, the main competitors are Johnson and Johnson and an Italian company called TGR. Gil claims TGR’s wheelchair is heavy and clumsy, and not popular with customers.

In the stair climbing device market, Germany company Alber, which has developed a stair climbing device called Scalamobile, is the main threat. Michaeli insists Galileo’s device is simpler, more user-friendly and that it will also be much cheaper.

“We have a very strong technology with a clear advantage over the other technologies in the market. We know that as a three-man start-up we cannot fight these competitors and that’s why we are looking for strategic partners,” says Michaeli.

In future, Michaeli believes that Galileo’s technology could find its way to many other applications, including four by four vehicles. “It’s just a question of time, and money,” he adds.


About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.