The Island Mobility team. From left: Emma Cowley, Andrew Ellis, Marcus Horton (holding one of the first prototype sections of unique stairlift rail, Alex Horton and Julie Horton
The Island Mobility team. From left: Emma Cowley, Andrew Ellis, Marcus Horton (holding one of the first prototype sections of unique stairlift rail, Alex Horton and Julie Horton

Stairlift & ramp surveys? There’s an app for that

Innovation. It is a word that gets thrown around a lot, yet how often do technological leaps such as Apple’s iPhone or apps like Facebook or WhatsApp appear? One retailer, however, has decided to invest time and money to push the boundaries and create innovations that could transform the mobility industry. Rob Horton, Managing Director of Island Mobility, shares his journey into the world of research and development as he prepares to bring new inventions to the market.

An organic shift into mobility

Long before Island Mobility was exploring how digital technologies could be applied to the industry, the company started life as a humble car garage on the Isle of Wight. Rob Horton, Managing Director of Island Mobility, joined the family firm – then known as Marshalls Garage (Ryde) – over four decades ago as his first job.

Eventually, the small backstreet garage naturally found itself in the mobility industry, doing repairs and maintenance work for the NHS Wheelchair Services and on the Ministry of Health’s Invacars.

“It started out as just one guy, servicing all the clients on the Isle of Wight for four hours on a Thursday afternoon,” recounts Rob.

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“The garage also worked on the AC Invacar and by the time I joined, 100 per cent of our mobility work was government contract. The mobility industry was incredibly small back then and we held the wheelchair service contracts for decades.

“We even opened a workshop in Parkhurst prison to recondition their wheelchairs so we’ve taken on some interesting contracts over the years.”

Progressively, the car garage found itself moving increasingly into the world of mobility until it decided to leave the motor trade behind in favour of becoming a fully-fledged mobility specialist. Rob and his wife Julie found a large unit next to B&Q and changed the company’s name to Island Mobility.

“Mobility became so interesting and we have met so many fantastic clients over the years,” he says.

“We’ve had customers I’ve personally known all their lives and watching the difference these products have made to their quality of life has been wonderful.”

From mobility to mobile apps

Growing from a small automotive repair garage into a reputable mobility retailer and equipment installer, Island Mobility continues to evolve and enter new spaces. Recently, Rob has been working on several innovations with the potential to transform how stairlifts and ramps are surveyed, fitted and reused.

“I think we all have the power to make a change.” Rob Horton

The first of the small island retailer’s inventions is a reversible, reusable stairlift rail system and smart survey system.

Reimaging rails

Rob first conceived the idea of a reusable rail system back in 2014. It was through working with his local hospice and Macmillan nurses to hire stairlifts to people receiving end of life care that he encountered a problem.

“It was clear that people wanted to be in their own homes, rather than in a hospice,” he says.

“Eventually, we had around 150 stairlifts out on hire and most of them were not even out for a year. However, we became frustrated at being unable to hire curved stairlifts because these are typically created bespoke for individual staircases.”

Out of this frustration, the cogs of Rob’s mind started whirling and he came up with the notion of a reversible stairlift rail that could be reused.

“The design of the rail is straightforward,” he notes.

“It has no start or stop, can be an internal or external and either left or right. It also means that the installer doesn’t have to lift the stairlift unit to the top. At that time, we were having to lift 34kg stairlift units to the top of a flight of stairs to load it onto the rail.”

He put in for the patent in 2014 and by 2015, he had received approval in all the major countries around the world. That was just the start of the inventor’s vision, however, as Rob has his eye’s set on something far more ambitious.

App-plying smart tech to stairlift installations

The reversible rail is just part of a wider system, emphasises Rob. He wants to bring the modern smart technologies of today to bear on the installation of stairlifts.

“What I really wanted to create was a stairlift system which is reusable and uses smart tech to do the survey. In 2014, however, the technology was not quite there yet so we just focused on the rail,” he says.

“We knew the technology to create a smart survey tool would come along, though. It was just a matter of time.”

Despite having the end goal in mind, the Isle of Wight innovator had to wait for the technology to catch up. It wasn’t until April 2018, almost four years later, that the technology Rob had been waiting became available.

“We didn’t think we would have to wait quite so long!” he exclaims.

“It was not until June 2018 that Apple released iOS12 and, with it, a simple little app called Measure. When that launched, it became apparent to us that we could change so much in the mobility world for the better.”

Unlike many people that innocuously delay downloading an update from Apple until they are forced to clear space to accommodate it, the release of iOS12 for Rob was a game-changer. The unassuming Measure app, which allows users to measure an object by pointing the device’s camera at it, was the breakthrough Rob had been waiting for to start developing his own smart survey app.

“On the surface, Measure is a very simple app but the workings behind it are incredible,” describes Rob.

“It is exactly what we needed to develop a stairlift survey app so we got a team together and got to work.”

Now entering the final stages of development, the clever app allows a mobility company to measure a staircase and produce an image in mixed reality. Then, an algorithm selects the pre-made rail sections required to fit a staircase.

Island Mobility stairlift survey innovation 2
A screenshot of the stairlift survey app. The app has already created a transparent survey in mixed reality and the algorithm is selecting the rail sections required.

Island Mobility stairlift survey innovation

“The survey is transparent so you can overlay it onto the actual staircase to check the accuracy,” continues Rob.

“The client can see how the ramping system or stairlift would look in-situ so they can make changes if they wish or sign the survey off there and then.

“Using a smart survey system enables us to use a unique hoist with omni-wheels so we can wheel the heavy stairlift unit into the house and then it can self-load at the bottom of the stairs, as the rail is assembled from the top down.”

Ramping up innovation

Not just satisfied with developing a smart survey app for stairlifts, Rob and his development team are also busy bringing new technology to the world of ramp installations. During the first coronavirus lockdown, there was a considerable push to get people discharged from hospitals and care homes quickly. With the push to discharge came an increased need to install ramps quickly, points out Rob.

“The pandemic really highlighted some of the issues we encounter with ramping,” he says.

“There were times when a ramp would not fit onto a client’s property. Also, to the best of my knowledge, there are no ramps on the market that will fit onto grass.

“I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a solution available. It seemed crazy! The idea of people having to go through a lengthy grant process to get a concrete ramp installed outside their house to get discharged or not be a prisoner in their own home seemed ridiculous.”

After seeing the bottlenecks these ramping problems were creating, Rob and his team came up with the idea of creating a new modular ramping system by adapting a solution it uses for outdoor stairlifts installations.

“We had already designed earth fixings to enable a stairlift to run up a grass bank. These are essentially giant screws drilled into the earth,” details Rob.

“So, we thought it must be easy enough to develop a modular ramping system that could run down a grass bank. That way, there is no need for a permanent concrete ramp and the whole process becomes a lot quicker.”

LiDAR opens the door to innovation

Alongside its modular ramping system, another update released by Apple earlier this year has enabled Island Mobility’s team to create a new survey system capable of dealing with the tricky surfaces and angles involved in a ramp installation.

“It was not until Apple released its iPad Pro with LiDAR technology that we could look to develop an app for surveying ramps outside,” emphasises Rob.

The LiDAR Scanner on the iPad Pro and new iPhone 12 Pro can map out and visualise an environment in 3D by firing lasers out and then timing how quickly they return. Away from the technical ins and outs of the technology, what is exciting is how Rob and his team are applying it to the mobility sector.

A screenshot of the stairlift survey app. The app has already created the transparent survey in mixed reality and the algorithm is selecting the rail sections required
A screenshot of the ramp survey app. By walking up the grass bank, the app has surveyed the contours of the bank using LiDAR and the algorithm has selected the modular ramping sections required.

“By using LiDAR, we can survey surroundings where access is an issue for a client,” he says.

“We can survey a grass bank using LiDAR that creates an image of the area. The app then selects the correct ramping and platform sections, showing the gradients of the ramps.”

Just like Island Mobility’s stairlift survey app, the ramp app produces a “shopping list” of pre-made parts needed for the job.

“Once it has surveyed the grass bank, the lawn, the steps up to the house etc, our app will simply put the platforms and ramp sections onto that survey,” continues Rob.

“It can even calculate how long the adjustable leg sections need to be. Also, all parts are reusable, including the earth fixings.

“We have just finished our prototype now so we know it works. Next, we’ll seek patent-approval for the system in the coming months and develop a new function in the business that can build the modular ramping kit ourselves.”

Island Mobility ramping survey app

With the company moving quickly to bring its idea to the real-world, the motivated mobility boss hopes to have the first trial modular ramp unit up before the end of the year.

“The local community store has been really supportive and so have the local council; they are really behind us trialling it,” adds Rob.

“The pandemic and need to get people home quickly really gave us the push to accelerate the project while Apple’s new LiDAR Scanner completely opened our eyes to applying our stairlift survey to ramps as well – something we had never really considered before.”

Modernising the mobility sector with tech

As the government continues to invest vast sums of money into accelerating discharge processes, Rob says his innovations cannot come quick enough.

In August, the Department of Health and Social Care announced it was creating a new £588 million fund for the NHS to facilitate getting people home quicker. From 1st September 2020, the NHS has been able to access the funding to provide up to six weeks of additional support, including supporting people in their home. The Island Mobility MD firmly believes his new technologies have an important role to play in helping reduce lengthy waiting times for adaptations, improving outcomes for patients, as well as cutting costs for all involved.

“Getting somebody home in a day should be expected, not a luxury. Technology has the ability to do that and in a far more cost-effective way,” he insists.

“If you look at the entire healthcare space, everything is changing. Face-to-face meetings with doctors will soon become a thing of the past and other areas are being rapidly transformed through digital tech. Why should the mobility sector be any different?”

Turning vision into reality

As Apple’s iconic founder Steve Jobs stated: “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.” While truly inspired ideas are rare, turning them into something tangible is even rarer.

“I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a solution available. It seemed crazy!” Rob Horton

It is often the high-tech nature of app development that potentially puts people off running with an idea. Listening to Rob, it is easy to assume that he is a techie at heart. He is quick, however, to highlight that this is not the case.

“I am the least techie person in the world… well, after my wife!” laughs Rob.

It may seem strange that someone with no experience in building apps is spearheading multiple digital developments. So how has an independent mobility retailer managed to successfully enter a world usually associated with California’s famed Silicon Valley?

For the Island Mobility boss, it is simple: Take an idea, find the right people to deliver it and make it happen.

“I’ve found the process to be relatively straightforward,” he explains.

“We were really lucky to find a great development team of young and motivated guys who have been phenomenal. What I find most refreshing is that they seem to have no barriers.”

Interestingly, Rob suggests that engaging the team of talented young developers to work on projects in the mobility industry – arguably, not the sexiest of sectors in terms of cutting-edge app technology – has been remarkably easy.

“I think when I was a kid, the sector had a bit of a stigma but I don’t think it has that now. Once I explained the industry that we are in and who the app would benefit, they were eager to get involved,” he continues.

“They’ve all got grandparents or elderly relatives so they understand how important the sector is. They are also aware of just how Jurassic this industry is and what is possible, so they have been excited to be the ones to have the opportunity to bring that change.”

Rob’s part in the process has been one of guidance and project management, creating the right environment for his team to do what they do best.

“My role has largely been to keep the team focused on what we want to achieve. Again, it has been simple,” he attests.

“Of course, the technical know-how to create the app is very complex and sounds like a foreign language to me when the developers go into it. The actual bringing together of the team and giving them the freedom to create has been a delight, though.

“Through working on this app, I have met some incredible people and I have learned more doing this than I have doing anything else in my life.”

Island Mobility getting ahead of the digital curve

Getting ahead of the digital curve

This drive to innovate is also essential for the company’s long-term survival, emphasises Rob.

“Since the end of March, we have sold very little of what I would describe as luxury items,” he says.

“Everything has been a necessity – the market since the start of COVID has been incredibly different so we have had to diversify what we do now compared to what we did in the past.”

One of the most fundamental changes since March has been an intensification of digital tech adoption. Be it online purchasing, virtual assessments or remote monitoring, the coronavirus is forcing local authorities, healthcare providers, companies and users to embrace new digital ways of operating.

“I think the way we sell as an industry will definitely be tech-led soon, so it is on us as businesses to be ahead of that curve,” Rob continues.

“Our goal is to create a sales and assessment process that is transparent and gives scope for users, families and carers to be fully engaged. I think tech will enable this and we are already thinking of new ideas that we can create specifically for private customers and healthcare professionals.”

What does the future hold?

Never setting out with the intention of changing the industry, Rob’s innovations are largely the result of passion projects born out of frustrations. Since starting down this road in 2014, however, he has never looked back.

“It is so rewarding to be at a point where we have prototypes working just as I dreamed they would. We are not finished yet, though,” says Rob.

“We are on a journey, which the whole team is on. We plan to franchise these systems globally and while we cannot definitively say when this franchise model will be in place, I can say things are rolling along nicely. Next year will be a really interesting year for us and the industry.

“If people are interested, please email Innovate@island-mobility.co.uk as I would love to hear their thoughts.”

Having received app approval from Apple at the end of October, the future is looking bright for the long-established mobility retailer and fledgeling mobile app developer. Rob now hopes his story will inspire others in the industry to pursue similar innovative undertakings.

“There are many problems in the mobility sector that could be addressed with new technologies but I think people in the industry need to feel empowered to know they can create them,” he finishes.

“There are a lot of barriers put in our way to change things but I think the biggest barrier that we can put in the way is ourselves. I think we all have the power to make a change.”

This kind of sentiment sounds more akin to something an entrepreneur of a tech start-up would say at a TED talk – a far cry from the world of mobility. But, why should it be so divorced from this industry? Rob’s determination to embrace new technologies and apply it to the sector proves that the inventiveness of California’s Silicon Valley can be brought to any industry and any location, just as long as someone is driven enough to deliver it.

www.islandmobility.co.uk

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