When entries were invited for the James Dyson Award — an international design honour that celebrates and inspires designers of new problem-solving ideas — in the UAE for the first time last year, engineering students Ali Asgar Salim and Amer Siddiqui immediately got together brainstorming ideas that revolved around solar energy and the environment.

The guidelines were simple: find a problem, and provide a solution to it.

Deciding to make entering the awards their summer project, the 22-year-old American University of Sharjah students from Mumbai, India, initially felt energy solutions and technologies were the way to go.

‘But our ideas on energy turned out to be too expensive to execute,’ says Ali, which, on hindsight, appears to have been quite the lucky turn for them.

Around the same time, they remember speaking with some relatives who were wheelchair users and the conversations ‘all had the same undercurrent. None of their experiences was very pleasant,’ says Amer. This immediately set the duo thinking on a completely different plane.

In the Air Chair’s prototype stage, Amer and Ali say the process didn’t come without its set of glitches, including having to change the design multiple times
Anas Thacharpadikkal

They found that several airlines and airports are still not friendly to wheelchair users. Passengers using wheelchairs are often required to arrive at the airport much in advance, are expected to wait a long time before they are assisted, wait for the entire flight to disembark before they are wheeled out. If all this is not bad enough, wheelchair assistance fees are often quite steep.

The pair did a bit more research and found that wheelchairs itself posed a few problems when travelling by air. While there are restrictions on size and weight, storage in the cabin is often on a first-come-first-serve basis, while storage in the hold could leave wheelchairs damaged. There have been occasions when certain wheelchairs have been banned outright on some airlines as well. A few years back, EasyJet left thousands of people with disabilities unable to fly after banning most powered wheelchairs onboard.

In a much publicised incident last year, the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner had to remain on a plane at Heathrow Airport for over 100 minutes after landing and after all other passengers had disembarked, because staff could not locate his wheelchair.

In 2016, actress Athena Stevens launched legal action against British Airways and London City airport alleging that her £25,000 wheelchair had been irreparably damaged, making her daily life difficult to navigate.

‘[Issues were more] in budget airlines,’ Ali says. ‘It’s restrictive travel. Long waits, weight limits, pre-boarding registration for assistance. Some airlines don’t provide assistance from a vehicle drop-off point to the boarding gate; some do but aren’t required to help you shift.’

Divested of agency, the basic human right of mobility taken away, wheelchair users, Ali and Amer felt, needed to have their problems addressed.

Ali and Amer with the judging panel for the James Dyson award last year
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Much brainstorming ensued, leading the pair to an idea that merged independence, comfort and dignity, an idea that would prove to be the gamechanger and help them win not only the national leg of the Dyson Award competition, but also be selected as the international runner-up of the award.

Cue the Air Chair, Ali and Amer’s proposed solution. Passengers use a single wheelchair for the entire journey, from the airport to the aircraft — it integrates into the aircraft seat enabling all in-flight features.

‘The chair makes it easy not only for the passenger but also the airlines,’ says Amer. While solutions currently in the market require airlines to alter the flight’s seating plan, which is not really feasible for all airlines, especially not for budget ones, ‘airlines intending to implement the Air Chair don’t have to’, he says.

‘Plus, our solution eliminates the whole concept of storage,’ Ali says.

Most wheelchairs weigh around 16kg, but the Air Chair has an advantage here as well.

Falling under the category of a lightweight wheelchair, ‘the model we have now weighs about eight kilos,’ says Amer. And with a few tweaks, it’s going to weigh even less. ‘Our analysis is around five kilos.’

Developing the chair, though, was not a light task.

All through summer, as most of their friends holidayed, the pair would meet up at each other’s homes in Sharjah, in cafes, and even at the university, brainstorming, developing and finetuning their project. Ensuring they thoroughly researched user requirements, they spoke to as many wheelchair users as they could to get inputs. The most frequent requirements, they found, were for a light, easy-to-use chair with a long lifespan.

Ali and Amer got valuable help and mentorship from the faculty and their engineering professor
Anas Thacharpadikkal

‘We converted these inputs into engineering terms,’ Amer says. ‘For lightness, we tried to hit the ultralight mark, which is below 7kg. For durability, we went back to basics of strength and high fatigue life.’

They ran various analyses to validate the requirements they’d gotten from users, and after a few weeks, submitted the design for the James Dyson Award.

Even though the pair felt they had a chance of bagging the £2000 (around Dh9,200) award at the national level, they didn’t anticipate their design being chosen for the £5,000 runner-up award internationally.

‘Since other applicants already had a prototype, we thought we were a step behind,’ Amer says. ‘But Dyson values creativity more… and we were absolutely excited when we heard we’d won. It was nothing short of thrilling.’

The award has brought with it a plethora of opportunities. ‘There was so much media attention and coverage, and lots of people started contacting us expressing interest. We also had lots of offers for funding,’ Ali says.

The winning run too is continuing. A few months ago, they won the Expo Live University Innovation Programme grant of Dh25,000 for their project, beating over 500 students from some 45 universities in the UAE.

Ali and Amer have not been idle since. Procuring material for the Air Chair, they prepared the frame ‘and then it was just welding and fixing’, says Amer. At one point metal 3D printing was also considered.

The chair is designed so it can pass through easily in the airplane aisle, which is usually too narrow for regular wheelchairs
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Ali says that their material of choice — the lightweight, strong carbon fiber-reinforced polymer composite — was too expensive, forcing them to rely on another material. ‘But the future for the Air Chair is an ultra lightweight one where we will use carbon fibre,’ Ali says.

‘We made a lot of mistakes while developing it. It was an iterative process but now we have a prototype.’

They are also all praise for the support they received from their faculty and their university mates. ‘Our engineering department was very excited about the Air Chair,’ Amer says. ‘We needed the help of the faculty, and our engineering professor, Dr Satish, mentored us through the actual prototype.’

‘Throughout, everyone was so receptive to the idea,’ Ali adds. ‘Our family loved the project because of the human touch. Our relatives who are wheelchair users are quite excited to see the project’s progress.’

The judges of the James Dyson award, too, were impressed with the design. Youssef Mouallem, general manager for Dyson Middle East and Africa, says the UAE’s debut year entries were remarkable with Ali and Amer’s project impressing judges for being mature and clearly-thought-out, fitting well with the UAE’s status as one of ideas and innovation.

He cites BITS Pilani student Sarthak Sethi’s Thumbfi, which makes it easy for people of determination to control different devices.

Then there was the Lazar machine envisioned by University of Sharjah’s all-girls team, which aims to bring about significant manufacturing improvements in harvesting the sun’s energy.

In the Air Chair’s prototype stage, Amer and Ali say the process didn’t come effortlessly or without its set of glitches. ‘We didn’t know if the design would work, how long it’d be durable for,’ Ali says. ‘We changed the design multiple times.’

‘The initial design was not very manufacturable so we had to change it for the prototype,’ Amer adds.

‘There was also not a lot of info out there on aircrafts; they are usually confidential and hard to find. So once we received the correct dimensions, thanks to aerospace company Rockwell Collins who helped us with the dimensions and layout of aircrafts, we had to modify the design to reflect that.’

They also contacted Emirates Airline and Dnata, speaking to a pilot and other stakeholders of the process. ‘We wanted to test how receptive airlines were to our design. They were very positive about it. That gave us another boost.’

But the actual challenge was none of this. ‘It was balancing studies with this project,’ Ali laughs. ‘But we enjoyed it so much that we looked forward to making time for it.’

A locking mechanism restricts it from moving during flight
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It is no small feat to be on the runners-up platform, especially when they had to vie for honours along with entries from 27 countries, from Australia to China, India and the US.

While the O-Wind Turbine — a new type of wind turbine that captures wind flowing in every direction — was crowned winner last year for addressing sustainable energy generation in urban environments, previous winners have included a low-cost and non-invasive melanoma detection device invented by a team of medical and bioengineering undergraduates from McMaster University, Canada; a foldable, paper bike helmet for bike shares; and a low cost, electronically controlled, inflatable incubator for use in the developing world.

Entries are now open for this year’s award; the deadline for submitting entries is July 11.

Youssef of Dyson says the main criterion of entry is having the desire to apply theoretical knowledge to ultimately improve lives through technology. ‘We’re looking for simple, yet intelligent solutions to real world problems. Past winners have sought to address sustainability through solutions for food waste or water conservation, while other designs addressed modern day medical or industrial discrepancies. Overall, winning solutions need to show ingenuity, incremental development and commercial viability.’

He stresses on how the growing recognition of technology’s disruptive power and its rapidly evolving role in our economies ‘places young engineers and entrepreneurs in a position of strength to deliver meaningful and relevant solutions. We are hoping that this behavioural shift, coupled with the recognition students received last year, will encourage even more inventors to come forward and present their ideas.’

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And while Ali and Amer now anticipate a whole set of new challenges while entering the market, including testing and certifications, they are surging ahead with what they can, having now filed a patent application for their invention.

The final Air-Chair is set to ‘look more refined, much more smooth. There are no hands and no footrest now, but it’ll come together.’ Ali says. ‘We are shooting for the end of 2019.’

While Ali has a year left at university, Amer is set to graduate, looking for a job and also to pursue a master’s degree. ‘I’ll still visit university to keep working on the Air Chair though.’

Ali says all the limelight has been strange to them, and he brands it both scary and exciting. ‘We never thought it’ll snowball into something this big. Until then the most public we’d gone was giving presentations in class.’

They’re not resting on their laurels though, and have already decided on their next project, having had one eye firmly on energy all the while. Ali says, ‘Energy is the most important thing in the world. It’s a hot topic, and we intend to find a problem and a solution for it.’

For more info, visit jamesdysonaward.org.