No terrain or obstacle is too challenging for the new all-terrain electric wheelchair from Austrian company LUF GmbH. Above all else, the LUF Mobil needs to be 100% reliable, In Linde eMotion, the company has found the perfect partner for its project.
Whenever he needs to clear his head, Bruno Walter likes nothing better than a ride through the forest on his horse. It’s a habit that would lead to a chance encounter in 2012, which would give a new focus to his professional life. That day, as he rode along the narrow forest tracks close to his home in Thüringen, Austria, he came across a disabled man making his way, with some difficulty, along the uneven path in a Segway that had been converted into a wheelchair.
“I just thought, there’s got to be a better way,” he explains. Back at home, the idea for an all-terrain wheelchair stayed with him. How could he create a robust, powerful, and reliable solution capable of tackling even the most challenging terrain?
Luckily, with Bruno Walter, this flash of inspiration was in safe hands, since the 51-year-old is also the founder, managing director and chief developer at LUF GmbH, an Austrian company that has been producing high-tech firefighting robots since the mid 1990s. These robots are used around the world to tackle major fires where it’s too dangerous for fire crews to get close to the seat of the fire. They are remote controlled, so can be driven right into the heart of the blaze and douse the flames with large volumes of water using technology developed by Bruno inspired by snow canons.
Today, LUF robots can be found anywhere where potentially fragile infrastructure needs protecting against fire, be it the marinas in Monaco, the Elbe Tunnel in Hamburg or the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in Hong Kong. Even the world’s largest nuclear waste disposal site in Siberia employs LUF robots. Safe to say, LUF is considered a global technological leader in firefighting robotics.
Nonetheless, with his idea to develop an all-terrain wheelchair, Bruno Walter was entering new territory. As a first step, he contacted his nephew who was looking for a final project for his engineering degree. Bruno gave him EUR 100,000 and the company’s backing. “I just said to him: Build me something.”
His nephew delivered the first prototype in 2013 and after four years of tweaks and modifications, the LUF Mobil was finally presented to the public in 2017. The wheelchair boasts impressive off-road capabilities thanks largely to the same LUF technology employed in the company’s firefighting robots to enable them to navigate debris and steps.
Countless videos on YouTube show just what the LUF Mobil is capable of: Test drivers roar through the countryside, splashing through mud and knee-deep water, navigating ramps, steps and high curbs. In other videos, drivers take on hikes over multiple mountain passes in the Alps. They are all clearly enjoying the experience of driving this high-performance vehicle that, in reality, looks much more like a dune buggy than a standard wheelchair.
It only takes a quick glance at the stats to see that the LUF Mobil is a high-performance vehicle: On even ground, the LUF Mobil can reach a top speed of 30 km/h; and from a standing start, it can pull a 400-kg load. This power is important, because it’s what enables it to navigate stones, roots and other off-road obstacles. Thanks to a specially-designed chassis, the LUF Mobil can navigate gradients of up to 28°. It can also climb around 3000 meters per day—the equivalent of crossing two high mountain passes. And that’s all with an electric engine.
The last thing people with a mobility impairment need is a rickety wheelchair that gets them nowhere fast. The LUF Mobil is a high-performance recreational vehicle. It needs to be iconic, even sexy, fun to drive and a source of pride. Just like a sleek motorbike or a stylish convertible.
Bruno Walter, Managing Director of LUF GmbH
Discoveries Down Under
The decision to fit the LUF Mobil with an electric drive from Linde eMotion came during a 2019 trip to Australia. Bruno Walter had traveled down under with artist Marcel Dengel and a small team of helpers to run some endurance testing on the all-terrain wheelchair. The team spent six weeks traveling across the continent taking photographs of Marcel’s sculptures against stunning natural backdrops.
“We used the LUF Mobil to position the sculptures in places that were hard to access, which gave us a great opportunity to test the wheelchair’s reliability,” Bruno explains. “In Australia we covered distances of up to 160 km in one go. We learned a lot, especially about protection against the sun, dust and extreme weather conditions, and the stability of the steering.”
The team also made another key discovery while in the small town of Coober Pedy in South Australia. At the time, the LUF Mobil was powered by a noisy rattling combustion engine, which brought some unwanted attention from one particular police officer. “He decided it was a motorcross bike and didn’t have a valid road permit, so he gave us a fine of 1000 Australian dollars. There would’ve been no issue if the wheelchair had been electric.”
The team also encountered similar problems in Sydney. “If we’d had an electric version of the LUF Mobil, we could’ve photographed it in front of the Opera House. But as it was, we weren’t allowed to drive into the city center,” Bruno recalls. “Nowadays, combustion engines cause all kinds of issues. So in Australia, I decided that the LUF Mobil needed to be purely electric.“
Electric at Last
The electric transformation officially began at the start of 2020 and it didn’t take the team long to find the ideal partner for this ambitious project. LUF GmbH has been a happy customer of Linde Material Handlingfor many years. All the company’s logistics equipment, including pallet trucksand heavy trucksare supplied by LMH in Aschaffenburg. “The Linde technology is exceptional, so it was an obvious decision to ask Linde eMotion to help us transform the LUF Mobil into an electric vehicle,” Bruno explains.
“eMotion immediately found us the right electric engine and control electronics, which could be easily adapted to our specific requirements,” he continues. “It’s not always possible to tailor systems that much, so it’s one of the real benefits of working with eMotion. With their products, we’re not just building a good vehicle; we’re building the absolute best.”
Bruno Walter is also delighted with how straightforward the partnership has been: “Other companies hide their technicians and IT experts away, but Linde eMotion are not like that at all. Whenever there’s a problem, we can contact the relevant experts directly. They know their technology inside out. Even when you ask a very niche question, you receive an expert answer that helps you move forward with your problem.“
The Perfect Partner: Linde eMotion
Bruno Walter plans to continue working on the LUF Mobil until around spring 2021. Then, after almost eight years in development, he thinks his all-terrain wheelchair will finally be ready for the market. For him, it’s vital that the final model never breaks down. “We’ve already had lots of interest from potential buyers, but we’re not putting it on sale until everything works perfectly and we’re confident that it’s 100% reliable.”
For Bruno, there’s no compromise when it comes to reliability, so he's delighted to have found the perfect partner in Linde eMotion: “The electronic components have been developed for forklift trucks working 24-hour shifts. These are demanding working conditions, but the parts never fall short, which is exactly what we need.”
LUF GmbH is currently building a new 2000-m2 production hall in Thüringen for its firefighting robots. Plans are also in place to produce the LUF Mobil here once it enters series production, so it won’t be long before the public can get their hands on one of these high-tech wheelchairs. “As soon as the LUF Mobil is ready, it’ll be full steam ahead,” says Bruno. And then what?
Perhaps another ride through the woods in search of the next big idea ...