By Paul J. Heney • Editorial Director
America’s favorite inventor is moving forward with some exciting new projects, after some critical lessons learned.
What makes a true engineering leader? Is it outright technical brilliance? Tenacity? Or creativity in tackling and executing projects? Maybe it’s passion. Or the desire to give back to future generations. Well, take all these qualities—and splash in a bit of a dry wit—and you’d have someone pretty much like Dean Kamen.
While the inventor extraordinaire and head of DEKA Research & Development Corp. may be best known for the Segway personal transporter, today he’s excited to talk about the reincarnation of iBOT, a powered wheelchair of sorts that can climb stairs and raise its occupants to eye level of people standing nearby. While iBOT was a technical marvel that used software and gyroscopes in groundbreaking ways, it has been off the market for several years, and its development remains a cautionary tale for Kamen.
“There were loads of lessons learned from iBOT,” Kamen said. “One of the happiest things I can tell you is that we not only learned those lessons, but … if you learn a lesson from a failure, it might help you on some future endeavor.”
And that future endeavor may look a lot like iBOT, he said. Kamen revealed to Design World that recently, after many months of petitioning the Food and Drug Administration, the government body has reclassified the iBOT from a Class III to a Class II medical device. This lowering of regulatory controls will allow DEKA to revive the long dormant iBOT and immediately start building a next generation product.
“If you’re really trying make a new category of product, it’s up to the engineers and the engineering community to make clear … to the other stakeholders why this new system … may be different enough from other solutions to the same problem that it needs to be viewed differently—by the regulatory authorities, by the reimbursement authorities, by the medical and clinical community, by the architecture community, by the city planning community,” he said. “Because, if the iBOT is simply going to be treated as an advanced wheelchair, it won’t get reimbursement commensurate with its value or its cost.”
Kamen described how, for many older people, there’s a financial and emotional devastation that comes with having to move from their home into assisted living. And he realized that much of that move really comes down to a mobility issue.
“[They’ll say] ‘I can’t get upstairs to the bedroom. I can’t even get down the three steps between my front door and the street. I’ve got to go live on one floor.’ [Think about] the cost for the rest of your life, the financial cost, the emotional cost, the isolation. What if an iBOT could help people live in their own home for longer, sometimes for the rest of their life? What if the iBOT could allow somebody to go to work?” Kamen asked.
He lamented that regulators would ask his team why the iBOT was needed, because people had wheelchairs and there was the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires ramps. Regulators felt that there wasn’t a problem with access.
“That was such an astounding thing to hear from ‘experts,’” Kamen said. “One of the lessons learned there was we, as engineers at DEKA, needed to be way more involved up front in what the real user needs are, what the real regulatory hurdles would be, what the reimbursement process needed to understand about the product. Again, the old joke is if Henry Ford would have asked everyone what they really needed, they all would have said, ‘A faster horse.’ I think anybody [who uses] an iBOT will tell you, ‘This thing is not a wheelchair, it shouldn’t be treated like a wheelchair.’ We didn’t do anything upfront to make that clear, and I think it was a missed opportunity. We will not make that mistake again.”
Not only has Kamen’s team learned from the regulatory side of things, but they’ve got some new engineering tricks up their sleeves, as well. This next generation iBOT should be a far better beast.
“We learned so much from a fleet of hundreds of them that have more than 10 million hours of use,” he said. “We can replace the old battery technology with lithium, the old sensor technology with solid-state gyros and accelerometers that are literally the size of a grain of wheat. We learn so much about how to improve the usefulness of the product and the features it needs, but the technology has come so far, so fast, that we are now given—which we rarely get—the opportunity to take the lessons learned from that project, and redo it. My team is back together, and we are working as hard as we can to build the next generation of iBOT. We anticipate making it available, particularly to veterans, as soon as possible.”
When pressed for a more specific timetable, Kamen said the model would be out in “less than two years.”
His FIRST passion
Kamen’s greatest legacy may not be an invention, but FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a charitable program that he helped create. FIRST conducts several competitions each year for students ages 5 through high school, starting with LEGOs and advancing to robotic designs. A quarter century after its launch, FIRST has reached more than 400,000 students and awarded $20 million in college scholarships in 2014 alone.
“Every stakeholder in FIRST gets more out of it than they put in to it, and they all put in a lot,” Kamen said. “These kids at the end of a season are exhausted! You think spending all season getting ready for that big football game at the end is hard, nights and weekends? These kids work all night, and all weekend. The parents are behind it, the teachers, the corporate sponsors, everybody puts in an amount of energy and passion. It’s almost indescribable, until you attend an event.”
And along with supporting STEM education, Kamen hopes that FIRST can increase the number of women and minorities that go into engineering and related fields.
“In our culture, you can’t blame all these women and minorities from growing up thinking, ‘Hey, I want to be in the NBA, or the NFL, or I want to be in Hollywood,’ because go look at television. Go look at the cover of every magazine on every newsstand. Go look at the news reports. The word superstar, to a kid, depending on who he or she is, either means an athlete or an actress. If you’re an African-American kid, or a young woman, and you think about superstar, or glamour, or success, or money, or fame, it comes from Hollywood or sports. Well, in a free country, you get what you celebrate. If that’s what they see, what are they going to do with their time?”
Kamen lamented how, in many of the big cities, the children in public schools—and the ones who are dropping out of school—have never met a professional engineer.
“Never seen one, never spoken to one, never saw one on television, other than, frankly, as the butt of bad humor in the stereotypically geeky comedy,” he said, lamenting about engineers’ invisibility. “It’s not surprising that kids in this country are not only not attracted to the world of engineering, but they are discouraged, particularly women. We see so many women on FIRST teams that will say, ‘I really love math, I was just afraid to let anybody know that.’ We have a culture which … dissuades a lot of kids from thinking that the world of science and engineering is cool, fun, accessible, rewarding.”
FIRST leaders thought that sports and entertainment were powerful tools to be used—why not turn science and engineering into an exciting sport and make it entertaining?
“Kids don’t want to work hard at a class in school, but they’ll spend three hours every day after school bouncing a ball. At the end of six or eight weeks in the classroom, they get a quiz, and then at the end [of the semester], they get a test, and if they don’t do well, they get a grade that inevitably makes them feel like a failure, or dumb. The teacher’s put into this judgmental role. Then they go out after school, and it’s the same teacher acting as the coach, this nurturing person. If they didn’t hit the ball, [they’ll hear] ‘we’ll try again tomorrow, we’ll work on that.’ At the end of the season, they don’t have a quiz or a test. They have a double elimination tournament, they have trophies, and the school band, and the mascots, and the cheerleaders, and the teamwork. Which of those two things do you think kids want to do?” Kamen asked.
“Why, if teamwork and competition and coaching works so well, why does the content have to be all about getting better at bouncing a ball? Why can’t the content of this incredibly powerful environment and set of tools, where teachers and parents come to watch after school, why can’t we take all the trappings, the powerful social trappings of sports and entertainment, and wrap them around content that could give kids careers, that could solve the country’s problems? There are way, way, way more jobs out there for any kid that’s technically competent these days than ever before, and there are going to be essentially no jobs out there for the kids that used to think, ‘I can just graduate and get some job.’ Most of the simple stuff has been removed, eliminated, done by computers or robots. We’re living in a world where more and more kids are going to have less and less advanced skills, and there will be less and less jobs for anybody without those skills.”
Kamen gets frustrated when people complain about our supposed job shortage.
“We don’t have a job shortage, at all,” he said. “We have a skill shortage. I don’t know of any kid that’s a world class programmer, or a world class engineer, or a world class technology person, that’s having trouble getting a job. In fact, companies are fighting over these kids. I think FIRST puts science, technology, engineering and math in exactly the format that kids are comfortable in, that they’re excited about. It makes use of everything that’s been learned about—how to make things fun and exciting, develop passion in kids—we just redirected it to where there’s real content.”
Kamen said that for 2015, FIRST has handed out kits to almost 39,000 schools in more than 80 countries. Additionally, this year’s program has more than 180 technical universities that will hand out close to $30 million in scholarships at the championship. There are more than 3,500 corporate sponsors and 90,000 registered volunteer technical mentors working with the teachers and parents. The Championships will be in St. Louis from April 22-25, and Kamen will be there, eagerly watching what he hopes will be the engineers of tomorrow.
Photography by: Stu Garfield