Thank you for engaging, your questions are welcome to help define the problem.
Picking things up from floor, moving them through a crowded space, and setting them down is a major production from a reclined wheelchair. It requires extra time to move seat to the vertical position and back again. It puts the weight of my body, plus weight of object back on my spine, which we are trying to avoid and is the whole point of the wheelchair. In order to move the chair across the room (joystick), a hand needs to be taken away from the held object. Objects supported on knee and one hand tend to squirt out and drop.
Any seated wheelchair user is further away (length of lap) from the object being picked up, so there is greater torque on the shoulders and spine than if reaching close to the chest. My arms are typical, but the chair perimeter puts most things out of reach unless I get in a compromised, position.
Doorknobs are one of the things out of reach. If we lean forward enough to reach a pull doorknob on the right, we can’t open the door because the chair is in the way. We need our left hand to reach across and use the right side joystick to backup the chair while holding the knob with our right. Too much joystick movement and we are pulled out of the chair, shoulder dislocated, or damage caused to door/chair. If all goes well, and the chair is backed up far enough we can open the door past the footplates, but not so far the knob is ripped from our hand (a difference of about 2 inches) we need to switch hands, left holds the door open away from the chair, right takes over driving, forward this time. Once midway through doorway, left hand must reach behind chair preventing door slamming onto rear of chair, or somehow pull door closed if not spring loaded. More potential shoulder injury with this reach. Once inside, if the entry is a hallway like my house, there is no room to turn around, the door must be left unlocked because I cannot reach it. If the first door was a storm door, there is also an inward opening main door that needs to be closed by reaching overhead, grabbing just an edge of it way behind you, and trying to slam it hard enough behind you with fingertips that it latches. Just hope the chair was forward enough that you don’t slam the door into your rear casters, because you cannot see them behind you.
There must be a chair mounted robotic solution to this very common problem.
Commercial automatic doors are common. It is very difficult to find a contractor willing to install these in a home. I would like to see a home grade electronic strike plate and smart actuator that can install in place of a pneumatic storm door closer. It could be triggered remotely by a button on the chair. Unlatch and hold the door open. Then close, latch, and lock the door with a second button press.
At Worlds, I worked late enough that they locked the main accessible doors, leaving unlocked only a revolving door, and one with a step which I could have walked through (being ambulatory for short distances as many wheelchair users are) but couldn’t use those doors because the chair would not pass. Some device able to be dragged down a step or 2, or held upright to pass through a revolving door opens many possibilities. It took over 2 hours roaming the stadium with a security guard to find a loading dock door which they had a key for to let me out. Those extra miles caused my batteries to be depleted before making it back to the hotel. Had to send someone ahead to my room to get the charger, bring it to a closer hotel to top up battery before I could set out on the streets again well after midnight 6 hours later. Getting through one of the 2 unlocked doors would have had me in bed in less than 20 minutes. A device light enough to drag into the trunk of a cab would have helped me get back with a dead battery.
A wheelchair just isn’t the right solution for someone partly ambulatory. It creates too many new problems they didn’t have before the chair, including requiring a specialized vehicle just to transport the chair. But it is the only serious tool currently available.
As such, wheelchair based solutions are a necessary interim step before a whole new class of device can be widely adopted.
It is very difficult to justify to a doctor and to insurance that you need a power wheelchair if you are partly ambulatory. You first must prove that you are unable to use a cane, walker. manual wheelchair, and electric scooter. Scooters are not designed for use indoors, not covered by insurance. They have no reclined/tilted seating options. The reach problem is worse, transport problem is about the same. Ambulatory users can qualify for a group 2 powerchair. These have no suspension and no power seating functions. Group 3 chairs like mine, rehab chairs, are very hard to get for ambulatory users. I had to buy mine outright used, built for someone else. Doctor ordered a standing motorized chair. DME Durable Medical Equipment supplier wouldn’t even attempt to submit the order to insurance for it to be denied. They were so confident it would be denied, they were comfortable ignoring my doctor’s order and denying me a chance to dispute the denial. Wheelchair manufacturers are actually forbidden by law from selling directly to patients. They must go through DME and insurance. I offered to pay the DME cash for the standing chair my doctor ordered and they refused. As a result of this defacto policy, very few of these advanced group 4 chairs are produced at all, raising their price on the used market. They are only issued to the most severely disabled people as a means to maintain muscle tone. People that receive these chairs are often unable to make substantial use of the standing feature because of the extent of their disability, often requiring an attendant for positioning. This results in lack of documented positive results, making it even harder for anyone to get a group 4 standing chair. A retail, non medical, upright mobility device would bypass these problems and spur development, which is stalled on the medical side due to unreasonable regulation.
Powerchair accessories are not regulated.
Powerchairs are heavy, stable, maneuverable, CAN controlled, have many mounting options, and high amperage 24vdc available.
Power elevating footrests are common. An intake attached to footplates could pull in a floor object, elevate it to a chair mounted table surface, push it inward toward the user, or outward toward a table, and all the while hold the object leaving a hand free to operate the controls. This is useful to all chair users, not just me. Likewise, assisted or autonomous trail navigation can be useful to all chair users, scooter users, personal transporter users, E skateboard users, E bike users, even teleop robot and drone pilots.
Unfortunately, if you ask chair users if they want autonomous features, you will get a resounding NO. Because the difficult process of actually obtaining a wheelchair through proper channels is so lengthy, expensive, convoluted, demoralizing, freedom robbing, privacy invading, and because the existing programmable features on their chairs are locked away from end users, there is a fierce distrust of any new programmable devices. Automation taking over the joystick is viewed as a machine taking away their freedom, instead of leaving them free to focus on less mundane tasks. If the new devices are available through normal retail channels, at reasonable prices, without prescription, reviewed by a few trusted wheelchair users, it will likely be better received.
Anterior tilt is a very useful feature available only on more expensive wheelchairs. Mine has a small amount of anterior tilt and I use the maximum available frequently. Large amounts of anterior tilt are only available on standing wheelchairs. It holds the user in a supported, semi standing position, eliminating the lap, putting some limited weight bearing on the legs, and getting users closer to the items to be picked up. These are wonderful devices, well suited to users that are partly ambulatory. However they are nearly impossible to get approved by US medicare, and thus any other insurer if you are ambulatory.
FRC participants are familiar with those roles. They are analogs of the daily tasks I’d like to accomplish. If I can fulfill those roles, I can do the other things I need. Washing dishes, cooking at a stove, loading/unloading groceries from vehicle and carrying them inside, using a computer, folding clothes (surprisingly difficult when not vertical, currently just avoided), welding, bandsaw, chopsaw, getting to floor level for layout/visualization. Floor sitting is very bad for my condition, but I frequently find myself needing to be on the floor. Often to repair the wheelchair. If I had a lathe, that too. Soldering is very difficult because of my 3 level cervical fusion, I cannot look down much. I need to solder and use Dupont connectors frequently, which causes neck pain and finger numbness for several days after. A leaning forward/sportbike position would be best for this. I’m fat(about 300lb). When on my back, I cannot see down/forward over my belly. The position I need to achieve spinal cord decompression is nearly horizontal, so even if I had no neck issues, looking forward would be like looking at your toes for several hours at a time every day. Not comfortable. The natural straight neck position has me looking at the sun or overhead lights. The pupil dilation alone makes forward vision problematic.
After being horizontal for about 45 minutes (required to recover after I spend more than about 20 seconds vertical), I am then able to maintain a good back condition at about 45 degrees. Roughly equivalent to the angle of a recumbent bicycle seatback. This is at the edge of what is an acceptable neck angle for forward vision in an average person.
Sometimes we need to temporarily move a few desks, but in general schools are some of the most wheelchair accessible places that exist anywhere. My current team build space is in the basement of a public library with a convoluted path and freight elevators. It works ok. The biggest problem is workbenches. The shelves under them dont allow me to drive under them like a table or desk would. I have to pull alongside and work twisted.
One year my previous team rented a warehouse. It was excellent, but expensive. The following year they built a new high school with a million dollar robotics lab just inside the front door. It is amazing, everything I could ask for. I hadn’t got the wheelchair yet at that time, and they got several new high quality mentors. I felt my poor mobility was getting in the way slowing them down. I was in pain all the time, trying to find corners to lay on the floor for a few minutes. When in pain its hard to think straight and be polite, so I withdrew for the good of the team. Following year, the library team asked for my help. I used a rolator with seat for the first time. I made it work because I really wanted to be there, but it was a level of pain I cannot stand more than 2 or 3 days a year. Then covid, which for me was actually a relief. Now the wheelchair, and trying to get back in it.