Brad Soden makes go-anywhere, do-anything wheelchairs under the well-chosen company name of Tankchair, and we learned all about his business in this excellent write-up on Bloomberg Businessweek.
Tankchairs sit on treads, enabling them to cross all kinds of terrain that would leave a conventional wheelchair stuck and useless. They can travel up to 30 miles per hour, and Soden is happy to customise them however his customers want — he’s outfitted them with everything from gun racks to roll cages to lawnmower attachments.
He kicked off his efforts to build a better wheelchair after a car accident left his wife paralysed from the waist down. Rather than leave her behind on family camping trips, he set about figuring out how to bring her along. “It just tore me up,” he told Bloomberg. “I didn’t want her being stuck anymore, not anywhere. I resolved to make her something. If we go out camping and she wants to come, dammit, she’s gonna be able to come. That’s when I started.”
Despite having no formal engineering training or college degree, Soden got busy right away — “It took me two years and a bunch of beer in my garage to figure out the first model, but since then, with my applied science, we’ve been making leaps and bounds. A bunch of engineers told me it couldn’t be done, still, we went ahead and did it.”
Tankchair operates out of a garage in Phoenix, Arizona and has sold some 200 chairs to customers around the world. Prices start at $US15,000 and go up from there depending on customisations. “The most expensive one I put out there is $US53,000,” said Soden. “That one can almost do your dishes.”
Believe it or not, Soden’s treaded creation got the attention of a producer at Pixar, who invited him out to the company’s studios. “They put a s--- ton of cameras and sound equipment out there and filmed me a bunch of times running over trash,” said Soden. They had him wearing a cardboard box over his head while doing so, and he quite literally became the inspiration for WALL-E, the trash-collecting robot starring in the movie of the same name.
While we can’t be sure which video it was that got the Pixar producer’s attention, here’s an early video in which Soden gives a quick demo:
And as one last demonstration of how robust these things are, here’s a video in which a Tankchair crosses and operates in a shallow river: