As of January 2009, the iBOT powered-wheelchair will be discontinued. This is unfortunate for the disabled community -- Dean Kamen and the others at DEKA (the same people responsible for the Segway and Luke Arm) developed an amazing robotic wheelchair that was (somewhat) unique it its ability to transition from a statically-stable, 4-wheel configuration to a dynamically-stable, 2-wheel configuration to give occupants added height. Further, by pivoting pairs of wheels, the wheelchair and occupant were able to dynamically balance while traversing stairs, not to mention the wheelchair's basic ability to traverse (relatively) poor terrain, such as sand and gravel! All of this was possible due to careful controllers and internal gyros (not entirely dissimilar to a Segway). Read further for discussion -- specifically about why this loss for the disabled community could be an opportunity in disguise for the robotics community and a big win for Kamen and company.
For those not familiar, the iBOT is pictured below in three "compelling" configurations.
On the left, the wheelchair is in its 4-wheeled statically-stable configuration, just like any other powered wheelchair. In the middle, the wheelchair has transitioned to a 2-wheeled dynamically-stable configuration to provide the occupant with added reach. On the right is the wheelchair dynamically balancing while traversing stairs. For the un-initiated, perhaps a video is a little more compelling:
So... I have always thought that powered wheelchairs had the potential to make great mobile robot base platforms. They are typically sturdy, well-tested, and designed for prolong (safe) use. Because of their large market (compared to domestic mobile robots), they also benefit from economy-of-scale in pricing (if one discounts exorbitant healthcare markups in the United States). Consider that I can walk down to a neighborhood thrift shop and purchase a used run-of-the-mill powered-wheelchair for $40 (I still kind of kick myself for not grabbing one of the three; I haven't yet seen another materialize) .
Anyway, it appears that as of January 2009, Johnson & Johnson's Independence Technology (a DEKA licensee) is discontinuing production (with service through 2013). This may be really unfortunate for robotics -- domestic mobile robots are just coming into their own, and a base that could traverse stairs would be a real boon. I think it would be a shame if DEKA dismisses the iBOT in its entirety -- dare I say a "failure" on Kamen's part.
Curiously, Dean Kamen came and gave a talk at Georgia Tech a year or two ago where someone from our group asked him about the iBOT as a robot platform. While I cannot recall his exact response, it was something to this effect:
Because of certain FDA certifications / ratings relating to safety, we cannot sell or distribute the iBOT unless you have a prescription and undergo user training. We really wish we could sell them to roboticists, but unfortunately, that would result in loosing the very costly certification.
Costly FDA certifications, indeed... the iBOT retailed for upward of $25,000 USD. Now that it is being discontinued as a medical device, perhaps it can be fabricated and sold for the robotics community instead (at reduced prices). After all, these could be just as useful as the various Segway robotics platforms that DEKA is (gradually) releasing, such as the RMP series of bases (i.e. the RMP 50 Omni pictured below left or the RMP 200 pictured below right).
Thus... we could either see the discontinuation as a lost opportunity (failure on Kamen's part) or as a budding robotics opportunity (win on Kamen's part). I guess only time will tell.
So, while I'm thinking about Kamen's GT visit some time ago, I might as well share one other interesting nugget -- Kamen was asked his opinion regarding dynamically-stable platforms versus statically-stable platforms for mobile manipulation. Curiously, he share's my (oft mentioned) view that the few added benefits of dynamically-stable platforms (form factor, instantaneous forces, etc) cannot match the benefits of statically-stable platforms (reduced complexity in controllers, behaviors, perception, etc). Perhaps this (partially) vindicates my opinions about having a nice support polygon -- the inventor of the Segway does not believe in dynamically stable mobile manipulators!