You have to love what human ingenuity can do, particularly when it's driven by love and inventiveness. Let Brad Soden, founder of TC Mobility, tell the story.
The idea of Tankchair first started on a family camping trip to the Hualapai campgrounds in 2001. My wife had just started to be able to move freely after the accident. Like all people that try and cope with the devastating injury of a loved one, I tried to keep life as “normal” as possible. We have always been an outdoors sort of family. Going camping, fishing, stargazing in the desert, or just having a big campfire at night with a bunch of friends. I woke up one morning and watched in amazement as a herd of wild Elk came through our campground. A huge buck with a full rack just watched me as his cows walked by. I got so excited and wanted to share this experience with the entire family. I got my 5 kids up, waking them quickly but quietly. I got my wife in her wheelchair and we started to follow the herd. As you can imagine, the wheelchair that was assigned to her by the HMO wasn’t built to go through a mountainside with other people. The family was watching the herd slowly walk away. My wife, one of the sweetest and most unselfish person who I have ever met in my life, told the family to go on without her. She said this with tears in her eyes.
I got so mad at the situation. It was not right in my mind that someone could not enjoy things because of a disability that was not her fault. The problem wasn’t the desire; the problem was that we had the wrong tools. When I arrived back to Parker I began experimenting on other ideas such as an off road golf cart or making an ATV accessible and safe. Both of them I did but they were not practical because a lot of the campgrounds we wanted to go to had noise or fossil fuel restrictions. So I had to make something quiet and electric. I tried everything I could think of. I stripped down a Quickie 424 wheelchair, using the motors to power bigger tires. As I don’t have an engineering degree, I was just a plumbing contractor and fireman, I had lots of failures and no success. I burned up lots of motors and modules trying to power the chassis over rough terrain. This process involved lots of beers and curse words in my garage.
It was my father in-law who was looking at my latest creation, and said “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could put tracks on that like a tank?” As soon as he said that the bells and whistles when off in my head and I started searching for light weight track system. I have experience with tracked vehicles due to my time in the US Army during Desert Storm and being a front line infantryman in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. I found a system for Trucks and ATV retrofit called Mattracks and decided to get a pair and see if I could make them work. Because of the massive parasitic drag caused by the tracks when it is use, I went through a lot more motors. Because of the cost of the modules, and me burning them up all the time, I developed my first fuse system so that it would protect them. This did not help my motors because I kept burning up the brushes and replacing them after short runs.
I was at a point where I had a prototype that could turn the tracks and was easy to operate, but could not go very far. That was when I enlisted the help from the guys at NPC Robotics. These guys had the experience from the heavy robotic platforms they made during the Battle Bot era. After talking with Rich and Norm from NPC and them trying to talk me through it on the phone, I decided that there was only so much you can do through a phone line. I loaded up my chassis and drove 2000 miles to Minnesota where they are headquartered. They had it working in one day. I had my first working chassis that I could put a seat on and drive around!
. . .
Our first trip with Tankchair was to the Kaibab National forest at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We drove out to an area where there was lots of trees and you go to the edge of the cliffs and look down at one of the 7 greatest wonders of the world. To me, the 8th greatest wonder was when my wife got in her Tankchair and got to go for a “hike” with our 2 daughters in the woods while myself and the 3 boys gathered wood for the campfire. The 10 million jumbo watt smile she had on her face when she came back from her hike was worth every minute I spent in the garage putting it together. Any of us that have had a loved one that was able to conquer a situation from their disability, and the look of sheer joy and pride on their face will know exactly what I’m talking about.
What a great story! Here's a video clip of the Tankchair in action. (There are more on the company's YouTube channel.)
The company's Web site contains more information on the Tank Chair and the Speedster, a sort of powered wheelchair for the geek in you. Regular readers may remember that last year, we saw Mattracks in action in the snow, beneath Ken Block's car. It was quite a ride!
(No, I'm not being paid or compensated to advertise this product. I'm partly disabled and somewhat mobility-challenged myself, so I find the story behind the Trackchair very heartwarming; and the geek in me appreciates its design features. There are at least two similar all-terrain mobility aids out there, although pictures and videos of them suggest they'll be lower in performance than the Mattracks-powered Trackchair. They are the [tracked] Action Trackchair and the [wheeled] TerrainHopper.)