It can be hard for people who use a wheelchair to cross rough surfaces. These engineers want to change that.
Growing up in Mildura in north-west Victoria, Ryan Tilley loved the outdoors.
That’s why, even though he has since moved to Melbourne and studied Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering at RMIT University, he hasn’t left the country entirely behind.
His philosophy as an engineer is, as he puts it, “nature is the best design mentor”.
So when he was trying to figure out how he could best help people with disability do what he loves – explore the outdoors – he turned to the natural world.
“I’m constantly inspired by how things are done in nature and by the art of biomimicry,” he told create.
The problem he was trying to solve was one of off-road access for people who use wheelchairs. The answer was Gecko Traxx, a wheelchair accessory Tilley developed with business partner and engineer Huy Nguyen.
Easy to use
“The benefit of Gecko Traxx is someone can put it on without actually getting out of the wheelchair,” Nguyen explained.
“So it’s really a completely different user experience to an off-road set of wheels.”
Nguyen compared that traditional solution to “travelling with a drum kit”.
“You’ve got to transfer it out, find a bench, transfer out, swap your wheels and then find somewhere to put the wheels, and then you can go,” he said.
“Whereas for Gecko Traxx, it’s carried in a small mesh bag hung over your back, and then you get to the beach or get to the snow or wherever you need to go and whack them on.”
Nguyen speaks from experience; he has used a wheelchair since contracting polio as a child in Vietnam.
“It’s such a natural place for me to use my personal experience and to really deeply think about the problems and the challenges and how can I actually go about solving them using formal education,” he said of the way his experience with disability has influenced his approach to engineering.
“I think the perspective I bring in is that I’m constantly solving problems and I’m always switched on to it … because it’s day-to-day life, right? So it’s very much a natural part of how I operate; it’s not like I go into the office and do some problem-solving mode.”
Nguyen and Tilley’s solution draws on a gecko’s foot, which spreads out when it comes into contact with the ground to increase its surface area. That helps increase the strength of its grip on the surface.
“A wheelchair gets stuck in sand because it doesn’t have a big enough surface area,” Tilley explained.
The Gecko Traxx attachments address this problem.
“How the tyre actually works is that once in contact with the ground, the profile flares out so it becomes wide and increases its surface area. And when it’s not in contact with the ground, it springs back closed and reduces its profile, so it doesn’t interfere with the hand rim or frame of the wheelchair.”
Nguyen and Tilley had to go through a few iterations before they found that solution though. At first, they looked at tank tracks or a seagull’s foot, before finding inspiration from the gecko.
“For us, that was the aha moment,” Tilley said.
“How do we apply that to a tyre? And it was just through sketching some crazy ideas that we were able to find something that we could possibly work with.”
They created a prototype from flexible 3D-printed material, which they then went on to perfect through rounds of testing.
They expect the product to finally hit the market in July, but the response has already been what Tilley describes as “amazing”.
“All of our customers are being really supportive,” he said.
“We’ve had pre-orders before it’s even been available, and then we’ve just had so much support through accelerator programs and other organisations who are trying to give us a leg up.”
They were also an international runner-up in the 2019 James Dyson Awards, as well as being awarded Best in Class by Good Design Australia and receiving recognition from the Melbourne Accelerator Program and the Victorian Premier’s Design Award.
Tilley has been thinking about assistive design since he was a student – one of his earlier innovations was a universal bottle pourer.
This is an ingenious device that can pour its user a glass of wine – or any other beverage – with the push of a single button.
Originally designed to be used by a quadruple amputee who had trouble gripping bottles with her prosthetic hands, the device can be modified to help people with muscle weakness, stroke, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and many more.
“We were designing that for people, for amputees, who don’t have use of their hands or their upper limbs, where pouring a bottle can be very challenging because you don’t have the wrist rotation anymore,” Tilley said.
“So the idea was to be able to put a bottle of – whether it be wine or milk or orange juice or whatever – and simply pressing a button and letting it pour it for you.”
Gecko Traxx is just the start. While Tilley and Nguyen hope to develop more products in the assistive technology realm, they are keeping mum about the details for the moment.
“We didn’t think Gecko Traxx was just one product,” Tilley said.
“We’re wanting to leverage the attention that was received with Gecko Traxx on to the next product and the next product, which we’ve got in the pipeline. I won’t say just yet what they are, but it’s all focused on getting people to explore the great outdoors.”
This is a goal Nguyen is fully onboard with, as someone who has lived and worked in East Timor, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
“I’ve always had the love for adventure and the outdoors and travelling and doing and making impact,” he said.
“There’s not a whole range of products or brands that focus on getting people outdoors and it’s so essential,” Tilley said.
“There are so many studies about that being essential for our health – physically and mentally.”
This article originally appeared as “Going off-road” in the April 2020 edition of create magazine.