Profile: The MIT Mobility Lab

mit mobilityThe mission of the MIT Mobility Lab (M-Lab) is to fill a niche in the mobility aid community; NGOs and manufacturers in developing countries often do not have the time, resources, and skills to develop high-risk/high-payoff projects that would make drastic improvements to mobility products and the lives of disabled people. By collaborating with local manufacturers and experts from the developed world, M-Lab students use their ingenuity and science/engineering skills to produce technology that can mobilize millions of disabled persons worldwide. Furthermore, M-Lab programs teach MIT students how their technological abilities can be used to improve the lives of others.
Leveraged Freedom Chair:  The purpose of the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) project is to create a mobility aid specifically for developing countries. Conventional western-styled wheelchairs are nearly impossible to propel on the sandy roads and muddy walking paths frequently encountered in the developing world. The LFC has a variable mechanical advantage lever drive train that enables its user to travel 10-20% faster on tarmac than a conventional wheelchair, and off road like no other mobility aid available. The user effectively changes gears by simply moving his hands on the levers; grasping high increases torque while grasping low increases angular velocity. Human upper body force and power outputs were used to optimize the drive train geometry for optimal performance on a wide range of terrains. All moving parts on the LFC are made from bicycle components, making the chair manufacturable and repairable anywhere in the developing world.
Amos Winter, the chair’s chief designer, hopes to get his lever-powered wheelchair patented and produced in substantial numbers – priced at about $200 each – within two years. Partnering with Transitions, he plans to test 30 more in Guatemala this summer, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, and then conduct wider tests in India.  To read more about this project, please click here for a March 8, 2010 article published by The Boston Globe online edition.
Other Projects Being Developed by the Mobility Lab:

  • Worldwide Mobility: Currently led by Danielle DeLatte, this donation network was inspired by the great need for funding. There are excellent wheelchair workshops in East Africa with long lists of people on their waiting lists. These wheelchair workshops lack funding, but provide better quality wheelchairs to their clients than the wheelchairs currently being imported and donated. The local wheelchair workshops have modified their chairs in response to the rougher terrain. By using locally made parts, these workshops’ products have replaceable components and can be fixed locally. If you are interested in donating to this project, please contact Danielle at mlab-web <at> mit <dot> edu.
  • Business Wheelchair:  Tish Scolnik originated the project, even taking the project abroad, working with partners at the Kilimanjaro Association for the Spinally Injured (KASI).  In spring 2009, a new team led by Tish and made up of Bina Choi, Leah Hokanson, Chris Mills, Vicky Thomas, and Joseph Wallins continued her earlier work. They focused on three aspects of the multifaceted problem: an attachable stool to increase business opportunities, improving the attachable table model, and detailing the logistics of microfinance.  The team worked with a community partner from Uganda, Fatuma Acan, to improve the design and feasibility.
  • Tricycle Attachment:  Wheelchairs are an excellent mobility device for within buildings. Unfortunately, it is difficult to travel over long distances using just a wheelchair. Because of this drawback, the tricycle is the wheelchair of choice in developing countries, where the ability to work is paramount. The creation of a tricycle attachment allows for travel over both short and long distances.
  • Power Tricycle:  This Powertrike group is working with the Association of the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) to modify their tricycle wheelchair to be able to have a power assist.  This is a design that APDK is very excited about having. It has the potential to be useful to trike users in Kenya and other countries as it would allow users who need to travel long distances a means of having the ability to move more quickly and not have to rely solely upon their body power.  Having the ability to use a power assist on their trike could also allow users to be able to operate a small business with their trike such as a delivery service.
  • The Figure-Eight Drive is an implementation of a Retro-direct bicycle drive train on a hand-powered tricycle. It provides tricycle users with a reliable two geared system. Users can switch between the two gears by changing the direction of their pedaling, with both directions resulting in forward propulsion. Pedaling in the standard forwards direction provides users with an approximately 1:2.25 cruising gear, while pedaling in the reverse direction allows users to climb and maneuver easily with a 1:1 gear ratio. The tricycle can freewheel in the forwards direction, though no backwards movement is allowed. The steering column can be rotated 180 degrees, allowing one to ambulate and freewheel in reverse.

To read more about the innovative projects that the MIT Mobility Lab is working on, please visit their website.

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