Helen Dolphin takes to the beach to test a new and revolutionary mobility vehicle developed by disabled users.
Since becoming disabled (just under 20 years ago) I’ve tested many different types of wheelchairs and scooters. Some have had three wheels, lots have had four, a few have had five and some have even had caterpillar wheels. However, when I was invited to test out the Segfree I was intrigued to discover that it only had two. My mind boggled at how this was going to keep me in an upright position and whether I was going to end up flat on my back!
As the name suggests the Segfree is based on a Segway which is like a powered scooter for grown-ups. The science behind the Segway motor is a complex system of microprocessors and gyroscopes and I’m afraid my GCSE Physics is nowhere near the level required to understand much more than that. However, in order to move the Segway you just lean forwards and the more you lean the faster you go. The Segway turns the wheels at just the right speed so you move forwards instead of falling flat on your face.
The Segfree works in pretty much the same way using gyroscopes. However, this design is unique in that there is an electrically driven, remote controlled motor under the seat which enables the person using it to adjust their centre of gravity without the need to lean, enabling higher level paraplegics to use it. This also enables the Segfree to be more agile than the Segway and allows the user to perform faster emergency stops.
To set the Segfree off I just leant forwards but if you are unable to lean as I did you can control it by pressing a little button on the steering console. The Segfree is designed to be used by people with all kinds of different disabilities including tetraplegics.
It is the brainchild of South Africans Tharina Stoltz (who became paralysed,T4-5 complete, after an accident), her husband Mario and a fellow paraplegic Mathys Roets, a famous South African singer and adventurer. They came up with the first prototype Segfree in May 2013. They have now formed a company together where they design outdoor adventure mobility products.
I was a little apprehensive sitting on the Segfree for the first time as it sounded complicated to control. However, it was actually incredibly easy. The only really important thing to remember is to turn the motors on before releasing the brake, and to put it back on before turning it off, otherwise you would pitch right forward. To steer there is a steering column which you use by pushing left or right. I was testing the off road variety (urban variety with smaller 63cm wheel base is available which will fit through a standard doorway) and gave it a good test drive on Clacton beach. The Segfree can get up to 12.5 miles per hour, but since the maximum speed allowed for powered chairs in the UK is 8mph the faster speeds will have to be reserved for private land. However, the speed can be set much lower so it can be used safely in public places. Its range is also good at between 16 to 24 miles on the Urban model.
The Segfree adaptation allows a person to ride the Segway while seated. To me this seems a far better idea for anyone wanting to ride a Segway but the manufacturers are keen to stress that it is only for disabled people. I was impressed with how this wheelchair coped with the sand and stone on the beach and was very easy to control. Like so much mobility equipment I expected it to be very expensive but was surprised to hear the off road model that I tested retails at £8,800 and the urban model £8,400. Travelling on two wheels was certainly something I’ve not done for a very long time but I found the experience enjoyable, exhilarating and most of all fun!