Fly Your Ideas Competition: an aeroplane seat-come-wheelchair

Materials World magazine
29 May 2019

An aeroplane seat–come–wheelchair that could make travel easier is a finalist in the Fly Your Ideas competition 2019. Idha Valeur reports.

A detachable chair with a motorised wheel system aims to make aeroplane travel more convenient for passengers with reduced mobility. The Smart Wheelchair for Air travel Needs (SWAN) was designed by the Move-ez team, six students of aeronautical engineering at The Polytechnic University of Milan, Italy.

Passengers requiring wheelchairs regularly encounter obstacles at several stages of air travel. Safety regulations state that people cannot sit in a wheelchair during a flight, so they must be stowed away. Neither can they be transferred on to the plane in their own chair as the aisle is too narrow, so they must use an aisle-width chair to be transported on to the plane and into a standard seat. This lengthy process involves physically moving a passenger multiple times which can be stressful or even painful, as well as being undiginfied.

Move-ez member, Tommaso Cinelli, explained to Materials World that to solve this, SWAN is designed to be installed on a redesigned class of aeroplane seats, where each aisle seat is detachable and controlled via an app on a smartphone.

SWAN is technically a two-part system. The independent motor device fits securely under the detachable seat to turn it into an aisle-wide wheelchair. It has four mecanum wheels – widely used in robotics – that can move back and forth, but also laterally without turning and changing orientation. These enable the user to drive up to the aeroplane, get on board, then manoeuvre the seat into position. Then the device can self-detach and drive away.

The team envisages devices being present at all airports, where an app would track the passenger’s journey to ensure a second SWAN is at the other side to assist the whole journey from departure to arrival.

Due to the competition final coming up, the Move-ez team was unable to disclose technical details at this point.

In the past, competing designs have gone on to become real-world products. In 2015, a team from the University of São Paolo, Brazil, presented the idea of in-flight recycling which received interest from 40 airlines. The Retrolley has three compartments that can be customised to collect liquids, cups and cans, allowing cabin crew to quickly separate recyclables from non-recyclables.

To date, the trolley has been on two test flights through the Airbus Sustainable Aviation Engagement Programme. Manufacturing firm, Iacobucci, has initiated the next steps to develop and mass produce, test and market the trolley to airlines and caterers in a bid to tackle the growing problem of cabin waste.

Fly Your Ideas

The Airbus and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) competition, which has run since 2008, focuses on using digital technology to make solutions for a safer, cleaner and better-connected world. The winning team will receive a €45,000 cash prize to help develop and realise their concept.

This year’s teams include AirFish (Airbus Integrated Fisheries Information Services) from the University of Cambridge, UK, with an ocean monitor system to combat illegal fishing and reduce bycatch of endangered species. A novel method of cooling electric motors by team Osprey from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, will also compete in the final.