Page last updated at 17:39 GMT, Friday, 14 May 2010 18:39 UK

'Off-road' wheelchair shown off


Tim Morgan puts the Mountain Trike through its paces

By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Two engineers from the University of Bath have invented an off-road wheelchair - called the Mountain Trike - to enable disabled people to cover terrain that has previously been off limits to them.

Tim Morgan and John Wardle have set up a company to market their device and they aim to formally launch trike at the Rehacare disability exhibition in Dusseldorf this autumn.

"The idea came from my love of mountain biking and my passion for the great outdoors," Tim Morgan told the BBC.

He says that he realised that there was no "off-road" wheelchair on the market to take people to the sort of places that he likes to visit on his mountain bike.

"So I set about inventing the Mountain Trike - an all-terrain wheelchair that allows people to go anywhere."

Easy steering

The Mountain Trike was part of Mr Morgan's final year masters project at Bath University.

Mr Morgan says that after some excellent feedback from disabled people who tried his first prototype, he realised that he was onto something and filed a series of patents.

The trike has two large wheels either side of the user and is steered by a small castor-type wheel at the rear.

It has fully-independent, air-sprung suspension to absorb some of the knocks encountered on rough ground in either a rural or an urban environment.

It is propelled by pushing forward on two levers connected to the front wheels - what Mr Morgan describes as "mechanical advantage".

The Mountain Trike has taken four years to develop and is now in its final stages before production begins.

Wheelchair in race, AP
Racing wheelchairs are more common but are made to go off-road

"We need to work on various optimisations to reduce the weight before we go to production and we need to do various safety tests before we can sell it," said Mr Morgan.

Co-designer John Wardle, who studied alongside Mr Morgan in Bath, was brought onboard to resolve some of the technical issues encountered in the early prototypes.

He says that he has been responsible for the steering mechanism which has made the trike turn much more smoothly than would have been the case if "differential braking" had been relied upon to steer.

He sees the potential for using the trike in competitive sporting events.

"Now that cross-country mountain biking is an Olympic event, there could definitely be long-distance or indoor events for mountain trikes - I think there is a lot of scope for that."

One wheelchair user said he had enjoyed trying out the Mountain Trike and had tested it in muddy conditions in a country park.

Wayne Philbrick from Worcester said that he felt non-disabled people would also find use for the trike.

Guiding hand

In order to give their invention the best chance of commercial success, Bath University put the young engineers in touch with David Rogers - a former head of Amstrad and Phillips.

"This product had a particular appeal for me because, some time ago, I spent three months in a wheelchair," he said.

Mr Rogers says that he quickly learned how disadvantaged people were when attempting to travel independently.

"Even in towns and cities, cobbles and kerbs can present significant obstacles."

He thinks that the Mountain Trike is intended for a new market altogether.

"It's akin to the start of the Range Rover where previously there wasn't an off-road market: it sits between the so-called attendant wheelchair and the specialist, sports wheelchairs."

He says that initially the company would like to distribute the product through spinal injury units and rehabilitation centres but eventually would like to see it for sale in high street mountain bike shops.

The Mountain Trike certainly won't be cheap - in part, according to Mr Rogers - because high quality mountain bike components have been used.

"We looked at the prices of comparable mountain bikes and we looked at the prices of some of the more exotic, sports wheelchairs - that seems to suggest a market price of around £4,000," he said.

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