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Prince Philip's Lucky Escape

by Paul Nisbet

on Tue Apr 13, 2021

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I was sorry to hear about the death of the Duke of Edinburgh and the tributes and coverage really give us a picture of a remarkable person, a strong character and an extraordinary life. He met so many people over the course of his life and so many people will have stories and anecdotes: here's mine.

In 2009 the University held an event at the Playfair Library to mark 40 years of success in research and commercialisation and we were invited to attend in recognition of the research, development and manufacture of the CALL Smart Wheelchair. The chair and platform are still manufactured by Smile Smart Technology in England.

1987 The University of Edinburgh's CALL Scotland develops the award-winning Smart Wheelchair The University of Edinburgh's CALL Scotland developed the prototype Smart Wheelchair, for children with severe and multiple disabilities who could not use ordinary mobility aids. The Smart Wheelchair is an electric wheelchair with a computer-based controller and special sensors. This allows disabled children to experience new opportunities for communication, learning, exploration, play and, thereby, achieve some degree of independent mobility. The Smart Wheelchair was awarded the Gold Medal Award for 'Technology for Special Educational Needs' at the 1998 BETT (British Education and Teaching Technology) Show, with judges describing it as "leaping beyond what was previously thought possible". There have been many robotic and sensor-assisted wheelchairs developed by Universities across the world, but the CALL Smart Wheelchair is the only system that has been commercialised and made available. The Smart Wheelchair is currently manufactured and sold in the UK and Europe by Smile Rehab Ltd under an exclusive license agreement. To date, 75 Smart Wheelchairs have been built and supplied to individual children, schools and charities.
On the morning of the event I duly chucked a Smart Wheelchair into the back of the car (chucked is maybe not the word for something that weighs about 100 kg) and went to set up at the Playfair. Alongside the stand and posters I laid a track for the chair to follow - the track is reflective tape and I stuck it on some hardboard strips to make it easy to put down. (The track is self-adhesive but the adhesive is pretty effective and I wouldn't have been thanked for sticking it on the beautiful wooden floor in the library.)

Prince Philip was shown round by Derek Waddell, who was head of Edinburgh Research and Innovation at the time (I think the Smart Wheelchair was the first commercial licencing deal that Derek organised in about 1999), and I could see them coming in my direction, so I pressed the 'Go' switch and the Smart Wheelchair headed off round the track. You can see Derek looking slightly apprehensive, possibly because I too have a reputation for foot in mouth disease.

The Duke of Edinburgh discussing the smart wheelchair with Paul Nisbet

The Duke was charming, funny and interested:  I read that in 2016 he remarked that “Everything not invented by God is invented by an engineer.

However, as we were talking I could see that a) the Smart Wheelchair was now approaching, coming round the bend and b) a section of track had been kicked out of the way (remember, it wasn't stuck down) and so the chair was likely to lose the track and head right towards us. Unless I stopped it, His Royal Highness was about to be reverse knee-capped by 100 kg of steel. (The chair does have both collision sensors and ultrasonic obstacle detectors but I'd not switched them on for some unfathomable reason.)

At the last moment I casually reached out and pressed the 'Stop' switch that I had carefully placed on the tray for this very eventuality. Whew, saved from committing an act of treason.

And what did Prince Philip make of the Smart Wheelchair? He said something like

This is fascinating and it would be really excellent for cocktail parties in Buckingham Palace.

I hope he's having a few, he deserves them.

 

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