Late one evening, I left work at my DEKA office in Manchester, NH and headed to the Mall to pick up a few parts at RadioShack for a prototype I was working on at the time. It was dark and drizzling as I pulled into the [flat] parking lot. As I stepped out of my car and started walking towards the Mall entrance, I immediately noticed a man in a wheelchair trying to find a curb cut, so that he could enter the Mall. I watched this man riding back and forth along the curb, and as I got closer, I noticed two other men stop to help him by lifting him and his chair up and placing him on the sidewalk. Immediately, I thought about how pathetic and infuriating it was that this modern building—The Mall—had no “reasonable” accessibility.
I entered the building and walked towards RadioShack, not thinking that I would see this man again. When I walked into the store, however, there he was also shopping. Once again, I observed this man struggling. This time, he could not reach anything on most of the shelves. I purchased the parts I needed and was ready to head home. I was walking through the food court on the way to my car, when I thought to myself, I can’t head home without a well-balanced meal consisting of a coffee ice cream cone. At the counter, I paid for my coffee ice cream and was ready to go. As I turned around, I almost walked right into the same man in the wheelchair, who was also waiting in line to get ice cream. After watching him struggle to reach the shelves in RadioShack, I stepped back and wondered how he was going to complete this transaction at the height of the ice cream counter.
Driving home, I continued to think about the man “confined” to the wheelchair and the challenges he faced. I thought about how I had never met him, but in a matter of about 30 minutes, I witnessed three massive failures to meet the needs of someone who cannot walk or stand up. I decided that I needed to take on that challenge.
I spent many months thinking about the best way to do it. I thought about how simple it was to envision a machine that was capable of climbing a curb or a different machine that could raise someone to standing height. However, I also realized that anything big enough to keep you standing up or capable of climbing obstacles, let alone a complete flight of stairs, would be far too big and clumsy to get through the narrow aisles of a store or be practical for all the other needs of everyday activity. Bulldozers are good at what they do, but you certainly wouldn’t spend all day in one.
I needed to create something that would be safe and stable—to balance like a person does when we stand up. My goal quickly changed from building a statically stable machine, to learning how humans stand up and walk by continually dynamically stabilizing themselves by using their balance. I was totally convinced that building an effective substitute for human balancing capability was the key to creating a real solution.
As a helicopter and airplane pilot, I am very aware of the many gyroscopes incorporated in autopilots that cause the plane to remain stable. The original iBOT proof of concept prototype was two motorized wheels, placed apart like the soles of your feet. Those wheels led up to a small platform, about where your hips would be, that an engineer could sit on. Under the platform seat, a motor, powered by a computer and controlled by gyroscopes was used to keep the device balanced and moving forward and backward. A joystick control allowed the engineer to control the entire device and cruise around on flat terrain, but that only solved part of the problem.
I continued to think. I needed to create a system, which would allow this balancing device to climb stairs and be capable of moving across rough terrain—sand, gravel, hills, snow, etc. That is when my team and I decided to add, what we call, the cluster. The cluster is the part of the machine that allows it to move from stable, four-wheel drive mode to the standing, balance mode that we demonstrated in the first model.
The real challenge was not to make this “inverted pendulum” stable, that problem was well understood. The challenge was building the iBOT with enough redundant motors and batteries that would keep the systems operating safely even in the event of a component failure. This had to be done so that a person with a disability could be confident that the device would not be a likely cause of falling down. In the years that followed, we designed and built those redundant systems to meet that challenge and that is when we were able to launch the iBOT®!