SAIT students design electric wheelchair–mountain bike

Students working on real-world projects help people with limited mobility scale mountains.
SAIT Park Explorer
SAIT Park Explorer. (Jonathon Olenick/SAIT Polytechnic)

For Albertans, the Rocky Mountains are always present—if not visible in the western distance, then in their imaginations, crisp and clear in snow-capped splendour. The mountains beckon. Ski down them in winter. Hike up them in summer. Enjoy those clean-aired gasps, unparalleled at the summit.

For people with limited mobility, such longing to explore the mountain wilderness often goes unfulfilled. While innovations in sit-skis have expanded opportunities for the downhill slopes, there are seldom the same tools for rugged nature trails.

Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) students have helped to change that, lending their mechanical and design knowledge to a special chair Alberta Parks calls “as amazing as giving a hiking boot wings.”

This tale begins with Christian Bagg, a man not fond of limits. In a wheelchair since a snowboarding accident 20 years ago, he nonetheless bicycles regularly to and from his day job. A wheelchair entrepreneur and trained machinist, he developed a special three-wheeled chair that functions more like a mountain bike—one whose wheels angle from side to side. A hand crank let Bagg navigate up trails in what he dubbed the Park Explorer. A couple of summers ago, he lent his invention to Easter Seals Camp Horizon—which specializes in outdoor adventures for youth and adults with special needs—and watched a young girl, with some push and pull of volunteers, steer up to a summit of Moose Mountain in Kananaskis Country.

PROFILE: The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology | Calgary, Alta. | Founded 1916

That had a huge impact on Bagg. “Seeing how happy she was, and giving her that control was what made it really fun for her,” he recalls. “She came down saying that was the best day of her life, ever. That’s when it evolved, when I changed the design focus, from something that’s super-cool for me, to something for a kid with cerebral palsy, or an elderly person or a high-level quad; anybody could go for a ride.”

He brought his special chair to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s mechanical engineering technology (MET) class in November 2014, looking for help to take the Park Explorer to, well, a new height. To graduate from the two-year diploma program, MET students complete a “capstone” project—a challenge that requires real-world solutions. Four students took an interest in making Bagg’s chair more user-friendly, including Tim Huynh. He had a kinesiology background and had worked at a spinal-cord-injury clinic, so this project was an ideal fit. “There’s so much specialized equipment out there, but it’s often hard to use; people don’t necessarily have the strength to control it or power it themselves,” Huynh says.

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Bagg tasked Huynh and classmates to upgrade his prototype with a motor, to turn the wheelchair mountain bike into an electric wheelchair mountain bike. Huynh recalls the challenges with sourcing the proper electronics. They needed something powerful enough to go up a hill, but not too fast, because it was for children.

The students spent evenings in Bagg’s basement, equipped with lathes and machines. The new Park Explorer returned the following summer to Camp Horizon, where dozens of youth could power and steer themselves from the parking lot of Moose Mountain to its first peak, more than six kilometres out and hundreds of feet up.

“It was thrilling to be able to get to the top of the mountain, which is something I would not have been able to do on my own,” said Vivian Sykes, a 19-year-old born with cerebral palsy. “The view was absolutely amazing.”

Bagg is working with another group of SAIT students this year to improve the chair’s suspension, modify its seating and give it a new look—in hopes of bringing the Park Explorer to market, and to lift more people with disabilities to new heights.

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