A team of Purdue University graduates has developed a patent-pending, dynamically adjustable wheelchair prototype designed to help users navigate more efficiently and safely in airports and on board aircraft. It moves through narrow aisles to their seats. The wheelchair drives omnidirectionally and has an improved turning circle compared to the wheelchairs currently available.

The original design won the 2020 FAA Challenge: Smart Connected Aviation Student Competition. The Purdue teams validated the design concept by testing it on different floor surfaces and through spaces that mimic the dimensions of airplane aisles.

After studying previous versions of the design, scientists updated the software, modified the electrical setup, and redesigned the wheelchair’s mechanical features. This results in a safer device than traditional methods of transporting passengers to aircraft.

The wheelchair is cost-effective for airports and reduces the number of ushers assisting people with reduced mobility. The Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization has applied for a patent on intellectual property.

Peter Ponticello, a recent alumnus of Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute and a team member who worked to refine the design, said: “It is extremely difficult for a passenger to board an aircraft without requiring constant assistance from a dedicated usher throughout the process,” he also said. Navigating an airport requires different floor areas and narrow aircraft aisles.

The current standard for wheelchair users is to transfer between multiple devices: wheelchairs, airport buggies, and aisle seats when boarding and disembarking a commercial aircraft.

Brad Duerstock, a power wheelchair user and professor of practice at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and School of Industrial Engineering, said: “The requirement to transfer to a normal aircraft seat is fraught with many hazards that have resulted in personal injury to the wheelchair user or flight attendant.”

“It always delays the boarding of passengers who have to wait for the wheelchair user to be physically transferred to the aisle seat, board the plane and then transfer back to an airplane seat. This is not only dangerous, but also very inefficient.”

Ponticello, Connor Edwards, Logan Gardocki, and Cole Mulzer are recent graduates of Purdue, and Jack Moran will graduate this year. They worked on a remote-controlled, battery-operated base for the wheelchair that functioned like all three traditionally used devices.

researcher said, “With this wheelchair, those who need a wheelchair at an airport can do so without the constant assistance of a messenger. This significantly reduces the amount that airports spend on ushers assisting people with reduced mobility.”

The original team that worked on the concept disclosed it to the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization, which has filed an intellectual property patent.

Business partners plan to further expand the concept, including the ability to transport a passenger from an airport entrance to a specific gate and aisle seat on an aircraft.