Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 3rd May 2009

F1 Inspired Wheelchairs

John Bailey
Beru F1 Systems & Mike Spindle
Trekinetic

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Meera -   Formula-1 is the highest class of motor sport in the world.  Itís a fast paced world where cars can race at up to 220 mph in certain conditions but for these cars to reach these speeds and drive smoothly and safely they need to be at the forefront of science and technology.  But did you know that the science behind Formula-1 is actually spilling out into other fields and even everyday life?

So this week I am at the Science Museumís Fast-forward exhibition which is showcasing just some of the products that have been implemented by Formula-1 science.  Iíve got one of these products in front of me now and itís the Factor 001 bike by Beru F-1 systems.  It has an electronic monitoring system fitted into it and John Bailey, the Managing Director of Beru F-1 Systems is here with me now. So John, as F-1 drivers are driving around, everything about them and the carís movement, speed, the driverís heart rate, itís all monitored and you are now enabling this to happen to a cyclist.

1996 RenaultJohn -   Yes, typically to get the sort of data we are now getting you would have to go into a lab and spend a few hours plugged into various machines.

Meera -   But this is enabling you to get it as the cyclist is riding around on their route.

John -   Yeah, exactly that.  There are sort of three areas that are measured, one is the cyclist himself, one is the bike in terms of the power put into the bike and how itís being transferred to the ride, and finally the environmental conditions that those two previous categories are exposed to.

Meera -   And so where would the devices be fitted on to this bike in order to measure this and how would they measure that?

John -   The power measurement is taken from the cranks directly, thatís where the power is actually put into the bike.  Thatís done by from the left hand side and the right hand side in the forward and rear stroke.  We also then have environmental data which is housed in the head unit, that has several accelerometers both for the bike and for the rider.

Accelerometers measure acceleration but they also measure lean angle of the bike, thereís inclinometers to tell you whether youíre going uphill or downhill.  There are barometric pressure sensors so if you are at altitude and then the rider himself, he has a medical grade measurements of ECG, respiration rates, his bodily position relative to the bike, skin temperature and core temperature if he takes a tablet.

Meera -   How are those measured?

John -   They are measured by a device which is strapped to the riderís chest and within the strap there are force measurement devices which measure the expansion of his chest cavity and the rate of which that expands and thereís also temperature sensors built into the strap.  For the professional athletes that we are working with we have developed some wireless systems which allows coaches to monitor the data live and verbally shout at the rider if they need to.

Meera -   It looks like a regular kind of bike but moving behind it now it does look extremely thin, whatís it made of?

John -   Everything is carbon fibre, obviously for weight and strength.

Meera -   It seems to adopt the monocoque system of Formula-1 racing which is basically where thereís a core body made of this carbon fibre and then everything is then attached on to it.

John -   If you imagine gluing lots of parts together then ultimate weakness is where they glue together.  If youíve got a solid structure that isnít glued together but is a one, whole, moulded single surface then you will improve your strength and stiffness.

Meera -   So it seems this monocoque structure in particular is a key design from Formula-1 racing thatís being transferred into other products and it's not only bikes that it can be transferred on to but also wheelchairs, more specifically, all terrain wheelchairs.  This wheelchair by Trekinetic is also on display here at the Science Museum and it does look pretty impressive so I am going to the Trekinetic base to find out more about it and see it in action.

So I am now a the production facilities of the Trekinetic wheelchairs in Hemel Hempstead and with me is the Managing Director Mike Spindle.  So Mike, weíve got one of the K2 all terrain model in front of us now, itís not very tall and the wheels are very thick which I am obviously assuming is going to help with the all terrain aspect of it...

Trekinetic All-terrain wheelchair in useMike -   I think without doubt the main breakthrough of the chair is the fact that has what we call a monocoque chassis.  That means one element, in this case the seat, is made of a super strong carbon fibre and itís to this that all the components are attached, like an F-1 car we completely dispense with the framework chassis.

Meera -   And it does look very comfortable.  It looks as if it follows the general contours of the body and so by doing this itís supporting the right areas.

Mike -   A conventional chair forces your backside into a square shape because they are all of a right angle construction so it was natural us as we are moulding it to try and make it as anatomical as we could.

Meera -   I'm just going to have a seat...  The seat feels very much like itís hugging my kind of hip and back area and I feel very supported. 

Mike -   Thatís right, basically your thighs, backside and sides are supported.

Meera -   Attached to this chair are these large wheels which are situated at the front of the chair and I mean just pushing it around a bit it seems like a good place to actually put the wheels compared to where the wheels are on a traditional one.

Mike -   When those of us that donít use wheelchair sit in an armchair our hands are at the front next to our knees and thatís really where the wheels should be.  One of the great benefits of this to the user is that for weak users itís easier to push but for strong users they can get up to twice normal speed. 

So when we did this and we showed it to a focus group we noticed that it was really good off road and then we discovered through the focus group that the average wheelchair was completely hopeless off road and people in more chairs didnít go on gravel paths, they didnít go out in snow and they just would be limited to tarmac paths.

Meera -   Now at the back of the chair you can also change the angle of that the chair is actually sitting at.

Mike -   Thatís right, one of the problems in a wheelchair going down hills is your position in the seat changes.  So if youíre fine on the horizontal when you go down the hill or you could be tipped out of the chair, especially with the front wheel drive design.  So we fitted a nitrogen gas shock absorber on the back which is very much like an office chair. By releasing a valve lever you can change the length of that which means you can tip the seat backwards and forwards.

Meera -   Now as well as that the wheels themselves are sitting at an angle as well so the top part of the wheel is more inwards than the bottom part of it, what benefit does this provide?

Mike -   Well we found that because the front wheel drive is just naturally a more efficient propulsion system, that people were getting up to, you know, strong users were getting up to quite high speeds in the chair and that led to instability off road.  So what we needed was an angled wheel system where the tops of the wheels are in a position where you can reach them but that where it touches the ground they are wider apart and this is called a camber on the wheels but the real problem with it was that youíve got the super sports chair thatís very stable off road but when you got in a supermarket you canít get it through a doorway.  So we introduced quite an innovative system of just by simply turning a shaft, you change it from negative camber to zero camber and you can get through a doorway.  So we got a true dual-purpose chair.

All-terrain Wheelchair

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