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April 2013

Improving wheelchair safety

Thousands of Canadians with mobility challenges rely on wheelchairs every day. While they offer an independent mode of transport, accidents involving wheelchairs can have significant repercussions, with users often being seniors, people with disabilities or those vulnerable to more serious injury.

Airbags have been widely used to prevent injuries in automobile accidents for many years and Vancouver-based Mobisafe Systems Inc. has been examining ways to make wheelchairs safer using similar technology.

They approached the School of Engineering Science at Simon Fraser University, seeking academic research expertise on how to develop an “airbag” safety system for wheelchairs using a foam cushion.

Through a Mitacs-Accelerate internship, Masters of Applied Science student Hossein Dehghani took on the challenge of developing a foam-based cushioning airbag for wheelchair use.  The system uses an accelerometer and gyroscope sensors which are integrated with a programmable micro controller to detect when the wheelchair is tipping over, and then deploys a cushioning foam mat around the wheelchair to prevent the user from hitting the ground.

“The big problem with a traditional system in a car is that the mechanism uses compressed air to rapidly inflate the airbag, and it is only for one-time use.  After it has been deployed, it has to be replaced by a mechanic, and that becomes very expensive,” Hossein explained.

“My research focused on developing the optimum size and shape for a foam airbag cushion that can be used many times over.  The foam airbag is packed underneath the wheelchair and when it deploys, it absorbs air from the atmosphere and expands rapidly.  It takes less than one second to deploy, providing a soft cushion for protection during a fall.  The foam can be folded up again in as little as one minute for reuse.”

A custom-made head form and slow motion cameras were used to help determine the best size, pattern and deployment of the foam airbag to maximize its effectiveness.  Mobisafe Systems Inc. is now planning to commercialize the airbag system, in the hope it will make wheelchairs safer, prevent injuries and reduce health care costs.

Hossein praises his Mitacs-Accelerate internship for providing invaluable industry experience as he now embarks on a PhD in mechatronics: “With an industry connection, your approach to research is completely different compared to if it was being done in an academic setting.  It helped me see the project from an industry point of view, with a focus on the end user and commercialization.”

Director of Business Development at MobiSafe Systems, Ali AbdulHussein, said the Mitacs-Accelerate program helped make the wheelchair airbag system a reality.

“Mitacs-Accelerate helped us find a skilled university graduate who had the expertise we needed, while the co-funding eased the financial burden of the research.”

Mitacs gratefully acknowledges the Government of Canada, the Networks of Centres of Excellence's Industrial Research and Development Internship program, Western Economic Diversification, and the Government of British Columbia for their support of Mitacs-Accelerate in the province.