Two New Zealand-based childhood friends have created and launched a world-first product which gives people who usually use wheelchairs the opportunity to climb up and down stairs, sit, stand, step backwards, sideways and forwards. In a nutshell, it provides the opportunity for people in wheelchairs who want to walk do just that.
The invention, called Rex, is the brainchild of Richard Little and Robert Irving and is best described as a robotic exoskeleton. Users strap themselves in and control their movements using a joystick and control pad. Each REX, constructed at Rex Bionics’ Auckland plant by a team of mechatronics and software engineers, is comprised of more than 4700 individual parts and is powered by a lightweight, long life rechargeable battery.
With Irving and Little both coming from engineering backgrounds, the two friends also share first-hand knowledge of some of the obstacles and access issues that many wheelchair users face. Both have mothers who use wheelchairs, and when Irving was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis seven years ago, he had to face the prospect that he too could one day need a wheelchair.
Irving’s diagnosis was the catalyst for the pair’s decision to use their engineering know-how to develop a realistic standing and walking alternative to wheelchairs.
The founders are quick to point out that Rex is not a replacement for a wheelchair, but a complement that offers a range of options not currently available anywhere else in the world. It is potentially suitable for manual wheelchair users who can self-transfer and operate hand controls.
The device doesn’t come cheap with an estimated price tag of US$150,000 (NZ$207,000) – though each user needs to weigh up the benefits for themselves. Rex is expected to be on sale in New Zealand by the end of 2010 and elsewhere in the world by the middle of 2011. The price will be a little lower in New Zealand since it will be easier to supply and support close to the company’s home in Auckland.
Rex has been developed with the support of TechNZ and venture capital company, No 8 Ventures.