Until recently I, like many other people with limited mobility, have not had a lot of options when it comes to getting out and about. I could struggle to get around on my crutches like I do indoors, but I can only walk about 50 metres before I have to collapse in a chair so there’s not a lot of flexibility there. I’m lucky enough to have a great wheelchair, the Quickie Xenon, which is built bespoke to each user so I find it comfortable to sit in for several hours (a very important factor for someone with chronic pain), but it’s propelled either by me or by someone pushing me. I’m not always up to self-propelling and even if I am, it can get very tiring after a few hours or on unlevel terrain. I am the world’s worst passenger and hate someone pushing me with a vengeance, so that’s not a good option either.
I have a heavy-duty road-legal mobility scooter which is wonderful for walking my dog round our village or venturing into the local woods, but it can’t be folded down to go into the car. I bought a travel mobility scooter for my first holiday abroad with CRPS last year, and whilst it’s an ingenious design, the very lightness that makes it portable means that it doesn’t absorb bumps or vibrations well, making it uncomfortable for long periods.
I am at my most comfortable in my wheelchair, so I had previously looked at attachments that turn manual wheelchairs into powered versions, like the Quickie Wheeldrive power assist system, the F16 power pack or the Smartdrive MX2 Power Assist. The problem was that their prices are pretty eye-watering, hovering around the £5,000 mark, which I just couldn’t afford.
I thought those were all the options out there, until a friend shared a video on Facebook, showing a wheelchair user clipping an ingenious powered attachment to the front of her chair, effectively turning it into a powered trike. This is the Rio Mobility Firefly, an electric hand cycle that can attach to the frame of many rigid frame wheelchairs and some folding frame models, including the Quickie Xenon. It costs £2,000, which is still a big number, but much more accessible than the other options I’d seen. I was rapidly sold.
How does the Firefly work?
The Firefly clips onto two brackets clamped to the front frame of your wheelchair, raising the front casters as it attaches. The wheelchair user then has a set of handlebars in front of them, attached to the front powered wheel, with separate thumb throttle tabs for forward and reverse (and a bell to let people know you’re coming!). There are two brakes on the handlebars and a digital readout provides speedometer, odometer, and battery level with five power settings selected through the display.
How far and fast can it go?
Rio proudly market the Firefly as being twice as fast as a powerchair. I’ve never used a powerchair so I can’t comment on the comparison, but I can definitely confirm that the Firefly’s 8mph max speed feels extremely fast when you’re that close to the ground! If you’re a real speed freak you can take off the limiter which then gives you a top speed of up to 12.5mph and then maybe you too could fly round a BMX track!
According to the literature, it has about a 15 mile range and certainly I haven’t managed to run my battery down as yet so I think this claim is probably valid. That compares favourably to many mobility scooters that can only do around 9 – 10 miles before requiring a charge. If you really want to eat up the miles, you can buy a spare battery for the Firefly which is easy to clip in and out.
The handlebar setup means it is very easy to manoeuvre, with a turning circle not much bigger than my wheelchair alone. You do need a level of manual dexterity to drive it, but the manufacturers have clearly made considerable effort to make it simple to use for as many people as possible.
Are there any downsides?
This isn’t a perfect bit of kit. When it arrives it looks a bit like something knocked up in someone’s garage but you shouldn’t let the lack of swish packaging put you off, although that is something for the manufacturers to consider in future.
Attaching it to the wheelchair, in our experience, is definitely not as easy as the promotional material makes it look. There’s also no written set up guide; you need to be able to watch the installation video on YouTube so that is something to bear in mind. To be fair to Rio Mobility and its main distributor in the UK, John Preston Healthcare, they do recommend that it’s initially set up by a qualified technician, but unfortunately there was no-one local to us so we had to do it ourselves. The process of aligning all of the different elements required what felt like hours and hours of screwing and unscrewing some incredibly tight bolts. We got there in the end, eventually, but the air was definitely bluer in Hertfordshire that day. I’m also not able to attach the Firefly unaided (as the lady in this video does so easily) which is a disappointment.
The Firefly doesn’t cope well with hills, big bumps or water. I’ve found that if you don’t have enough momentum going into an upward slope, you’ll falter and eventually start sliding backwards which can be pretty scary. It’s happening less and less as I get better at driving it, but I strongly suggest you go out with an able-bodied companion who can catch you if needed when you’re first starting out with the Firefly. I haven’t personally driven the Firefly in the wet yet, but the user manual states that it won’t cope with rain or going through puddles and, given how exposed some of the wiring is, I think that’s a warning to be heeded.
The lack of local suppliers also meant that I couldn’t test drive it before buying. This isn’t a massive deal and certainly isn’t anyone’s fault, but normally I would always want to have a go on a big purchase like this before handing over the cash. However I can only give the highest praise to John Preston Healthcare though, who I bought from; they were endlessly helpful, answering emails, phone calls and all my questions with good humour, alacrity and a constant desire to help.
Do you recommend the Rio Firefly?
In a word: yes. I love this thing. It may not be perfect but it’s massively fun and when’s the last time you described a bit of mobility equipment as fun? With space and a flat surface, you can even race (and beat) your family should you wish to; this author is clearly far too mature to stoop to such levels (but may have been a bit chuffed when she left her 10 year old flailing in the dust as she accelerated. Possibly.)
The Firefly expands what I can do every time I use it. Last weekend I was able to walk my dog with my family at a local nature reserve, heading over the grass, along the trails and through the forest; I hadn’t been able to do that in nearly six years. I almost wept with happiness. The price is still expensive but it’s more attainable and roughly in line with what you’d pay for a top end mobility scooter.
The Firefly won’t suit everyone and it can’t do everything, but if you’re looking for something to expand how far you can go, how fast you can do it and the range of terrain you can take on, I don’t think there’s anything out there better than the Rio Mobility Firefly.