Hong Kong team wins silver medal at ‘Bionic Olympics’ with innovative wheelchair design

A group of undergraduate students and faculty members at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology developed the wheelchair, which can climb stairs and cross tough terrain

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 11:57am

An electric wheelchair that can scale stairs while facing forwards has helped disabled wheelchair user Ng Cho Yu win silver in the inaugural Cybathlon, the world’s first Olympics for bionic athletes.

A group of undergraduate students and faculty members at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology developed the wheelchair in less than eight months. At the Cybathlon contest, held in Zurich, the multifunctional wheelchair helped Ng navigate through six kinds of obstacles including the final challenge of climbing stairs.

Watch: Hong Kong students’ wheelchair design in action

The university looks to make the prototype available on the market in four years as the city’s most affordable stair-climbing wheelchair, with the projected price hovering just under HK$100,000 per machine.

Professor Robin Ma Lok Wang, the principal engineer on the project, said the winning wheelchair is equipped with a durable tank-like tracks which allowed Ng to safely climb stairs while facing forwards.

“All the current stair-climbing wheelchairs use their backsides to climb the stairs, which is a way to place the centre of gravity on the front of the wheelchairs” he said. But he said this design not only compromises user’s ability to see what lies in front of him, but it also makes it very difficult for a user to control the machine.

Ma said the new design was “simple and intuitive”, and allowed Ng to climb up and down a pair of 3-step staircases in less than 2 minutes in the Cybathlon.

Ng drove the wheelchair through five other challenges, which included sliding under a table and navigating through a set of slaloms, a stretch of uneven terrain and a set of tilted paths. Ng finished the race in 3 minutes 39 seconds, beating competitors from other countries such as the US, the UK, Korea and Switzerland.

Ma said he and his undergraduate students devoted their entire summer in designing the model and assembling the machine from loose components bought from Taobao. Their success with building this wheelchair with a limited budget of HK$30,000 has encouraged them to commercialise the machine.

He said the commercial versions of the wheelchairs would far exceed HK$30,000 because they would have to be equipped with numerous other components to international safety requirement.

However, he said:“We are hoping to make our wheelchairs as cheap as two third of the price of the existing products.” According to Ma, the current market price of stair-climbing wheelchairs range from HK$128,000 to HK$960,000.