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RIP iBOT: the stair-climbing wheelchair

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Vaughan | 13:42 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009

Do you remember the iBOT? No? It's not a distant cousin of R2D2 and C-3PO, but a revolutionary 'stair-climbing wheelchair' that caused great excitement back in 2003 when it was unveiled by its American inventor, Dean Kamen He's the man who was previously the brains behind the infamous Segway, the two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle on which - or rather off which - George W. Bush so famously took a Presidential tumble.

Well, there's sad news to report, because the iBOT is no more. The company behind it has just sold the last few models, bringing an end to a relative commercial failure that saw the technologically advanced wheelchair racking up only a few hundred sales figures each year.

There's no denying that the iBOT could do a lot. Its six onboard gyroscopes allowed the machine to remain stable and balanced - and keep the user level on their seat - even while it was moving around on two wheels in order to climb stairs or easily negotiate kerbs. It could traverse rough and bumpy ground, and could also lift up, thus allowing the user to grab items from high shelves.

But the price was prohibitive: at $22,000 dollars, it cost more than a family car. There was also the problem that the hi-tech chair required the use of at least one arm and certain upper body control, meaning that it was only suitable for a small fraction of people affected by paralysis. The third nail in the iBOT's coffin came at the end of 2006, when the US government's health insurance program, Medicare, ruled that the iBOT's stair-climbing technology and other features weren't necessary for at-home care, and that it would only cover the cost of a basic electric wheelchair. If you wanted an iBOT, Medicare would reimburse only $6,000 of that steep $22,000 price tag.

Users who still depend on the futuristic mobility aid have been given a promise by the manufacturers that a repair service will remain in place until 2013, but otherwise it's a case of iBOT: 2003 - 2009. May it rust in peace. (Sorry, I couldn't resist the pun.)



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