The rhythm of knocks, shocks and bumps will be familiar if you’re used to navigating a city in a wheelchair, the landscape of uneven paving, steps and kerbs providing a constant background judder. But for Israeli farmer Gilad Wolf, a few months of attempting to do his job in a wheelchair, after a broken leg left him immobile, was enough to make him reinvent the wheel.
After experimenting with solutions based on farm equipment, he came up with SoftWheel, a high performance wheel that replaced spokes with three compression cylinders, incorporating suspension into the structure of the wheel itself. When the chair hits an obstacle, the wheel hub moves to absorb the impact, essentially allowing the chair to float, as if suspended in mid-air.
“Very quickly we understood it’s not just about putting the suspension inside the wheel,” SoftWheel CEO Daniel Barel told The Jerusalem Post. “The beauty of our technology is not only that it’s an integral part of the wheel, it’s selective and symmetric. That’s the game-changer.”
That selective suspension mechanism means that the shock-absorbers only kick in when an impact above a certain threshold is encountered – a threshold that can be changed by the user according to the kind of terrain they are traversing, and how responsive they want the wheel to be.
Barel says that in traditional wheelchair designs, over 30% of the energy put into going forward is lost because of the lack of suspension, which creates uncomfortable rides and tired users. “Most of the time, the user is driving a rigid wheel with no suspension and it breaks your back and shakes your filings loose,” he said, adding that with the SoftWheel, going down a flight of stairs is as easy as gliding down a ramp.
Nor do they see the application stopping at wheelchairs. With simple “plug and play” fixings, the wheels can easily be fitted on to bicycles, making mean work of potholes, and the company is currently looking at developing wheels for aircraft landing gear.
“Once you’ve eliminated sagging and bobbing,” said Barel, “you can work miracles.”