UAE winner of the Dyson Award fixes the wheelchair problem in planes: now on to the next stage

The winner of the 2018 Dyson Award for the UAE – the first time the country has entered the competition – is an improved wheelchair for disabled air travellers.

The Air Chair enables individuals with disabilities to use one wheelchair for the entire journey, from checking in to landing at their destination, providing comfort and mobility on the flight journey by seamlessly slotting on to the aircraft seat.

It was developed by Aamer Siddiqui, 21, and Ali Asgar Salim, 20, engineering students at the American University of Sharjah. Said Ali Asgar Salim: “If you pay attention to current disabled travellers, you will notice that they are very limited in mobility and accessibility and that they are forced to shift seats once they arrive in the aircraft since their wheelchair doesn’t fit between the aisles. The Air Chair solves that issue”.

The Air Chair can be used like any ordinary wheelchair, electrically or manually, inside the terminal. In the airplane cabin, it’s designed to fit the narrow aisles and seat dimensions. It slides into the existing seat and locks via a mechanism that attaches to the metal bar underneath the chair. Once anchored, it uses the existing seatbelt and retains access to life vests and the inflight entertainment.

The Air Chair is also foldable, reducing its height by 64 percent.

“Seeing the number of submissions and the motivation of young designers and engineers across the UAE is a testament to the investment the UAE is making in the education system,” said Yousef Mouallem, MD of Dyson MEA. “We’ve seen some great solution addressing global and very relevant problems across different sectors and have been blown away from the creativity and innovation.”

Seven UAE universities took part this time – as well as AUS there were teams from the University of Ajman, Heriot Watt, the British University in Dubai, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Sharjah, and Birla Institute of Technology.

The last two were responsible for the UAE runners-up. The Birla Institute team’s ThumbFi (right) is a miniature fingerprint scanner attached to the user’s thumb; each finger can be assigned to a different command, so touching a finger to the scanner can perform different tasks. There are obvious applications for the blind or disabled, since ThumbFi eliminates the need to have different accessories for controlling different appliances.

From the University of Sharjah comes Lazar (left), “the first commercial, compact, user-friendly solar cell laser cutting machine”. This is one of the more technical entries in this year’s Dyson Awards competition, effectively providing for solar cell manufacturing that minimises voltage drop and hence improves efficiency.

The James Dyson Award is an annual competition open to students and recent graduates from 27 countries (more join every year). The brief is to design something that solves a real-world problem, and the competition judges are clearly drawn to solutions that involve simple yet clever designs with real potential – both in terms of solving problems (as per the mission statement) and as products that can be commercialised, or at least distributed widely (an unstated aim, but then James Dyson is nothing if not an entrepreneurial capitalist).

The competition runs in stages. First, three judges from each territory pick a national winner and two runners-up; the winner gets £2,000 (just under AED 10,000) for further development, the runners-up get kudos. Aamer and Ali say the money will pay for further testing and analyses on the Air Chair, leading up to their ambition of building a working prototype and testing it in real-world conditions.

Dyson’s engineers assemble a top 20 shortlist from the national winners and runners-up. James Dyson himself then decides the overall international winner and two runners-up. The winner gets £30,000 to launch their idea; their university gets £5,000.

Since the competition first opened fourteen years ago, over £1m has been distributed to boundary-breaking concepts.

The Air Chair will be up against some tough competition; there are some inspirational winners, clever designs that do something useful and could easily make it into production. From Ireland, for instance, comes a biodegradable, repairable, recyclable, customisable shoe (apparently more than 300m pairs of shoes are thrown into landfill each year). The US winner was a low-cost robot that swims through pipes to check for leaks. Japan has a smart pacifier connected to a mobile app on your phone that notifies you if the baby becomes dehydrated.

And our money is on the UK winner (right), a diminutive low-cost omnidirectional wind turbine that works for apartment-dwellers in the middle of big cities. Wind direction in high-rise areas is not constant, and a dozen factors militate against the use of conventional wind turbines there.

Last year’s winners were from McMaster University, Canada, with the sKan – a low-cost non-invasive device for helping to detect skin cancers.

Dyson engineers’ shortlist will be announced on 21 September, with the International winner and finalists to be proclaimed on 15 November. Fingers crossed for AUS …


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