Students create beach wheelchair

The kinesiology department, along with the engineering department, is designing a new wheelchair to give people access to the sand and water, kinesiology senior and project consultant Alexa Colburn said. -Courtesy Graphic

Morgan Butler
Special to Mustang Daily

Beaches are for everyone, except those in wheelchairs. But the kinesiology department, along with the engineering department, is designing a new wheelchair to give people access to the sand and water, kinesiology senior and project consultant Alexa Colburn said.

The team began by interviewing people in wheelchairs about their experiences at the beach, she said.

“One of the girls talks about how her dad, in the past, has had to put her on a sled, drag her out to the beach, then she kind of had to flop into the water,” Colburn said. “People with disabilities have every right to access the same things we have access to.”

Bridge II Sports, a nonprofit organization in North Carolina dedicated to helping the disabled, asked Cal Poly and Munich University of Applied Sciences students to make going to the beach easier for those confined to wheelchairs, Colburn said. The wheelchair they are designing and building will allow the person in the chair to move independently across the sand, she said.

The seat will move, allowing the users to lower themselves down to the level of the sand, Colburn said. The chair will be able to roll into the water, so the person can exit the chair and swim, she said. The user will also be able to load the chair into a car and transport the chair from home to the beach, because of its compact design, she said.

Overall, the team wants to make it possible for someone in a wheelchair to be able to go to the beach without any assistance and enjoy all the aspects that someone who is not in a wheelchair can enjoy, said mechanical engineering senior Rory Aronson, who is working on the project.

“The biggest objective is to promote independence,” Aronson said. “We’re trying to get a design that allows anyone to load and unload it from their car, move around on the sand without assistance, as well as get in and out of the water.”

Today’s beach wheelchairs require assistance and limit the person in the chair on the activities they can do at the beach, Colburn said.

“Current beach wheelchairs are definitely not ideal,” Colburn said. “We can just make it better.”

Existing manual beach wheelchair designs are portable and lightweight, but are hard to move around in the sand without assistance, said mechanical engineering senior Alex Hayes, who is also working on the project.

Today’s manual beach wheelchairs have a frame design similar to regular wheelchairs, he said. They have balloon tires that are slightly shorter than regular tires, but are about 9 inches wide, compared to less than 2 inches, Hayes said.

“The wheelchairs that they have now to access the beach are cumbersome,” Hayes said. “There are these really big balloon tires that you have to push with your hands and it’s not very easy to push the wheels.”

The goal is to build a chair that is more compact, easier to use and doesn’t require assistance, Aronson said.

The team wants to make moving around in the sand easier than it is with the current balloon tires, Hayes said.

“We’re trying various things like lever drives for the wheels or rims that can spin at a different speed,” Hayes said.

The team considered building an electric wheelchair to make moving around easier, but it would be heavier than a manual chair and wouldn’t be able to go into the water, he said.

“Other beach wheelchairs can be electric, which makes it easy to move in the sand, but difficult to get in the water and transport the chair,” Hayes said.

The team wants the chair to be able to go into the water, so people can get out of the chair in the water and go for a swim, Aronson said.

“There’s a lot of electric models out there which allow very strenuous-free use, moving across the sand without much effort, but we really want to get the user into the water, so that ruled out electric options,” Aronson said.

Electric chairs are also much larger than manual chairs, he said. The team wants the user to be able to transport the chair without any help.

“Our maximum limit is to be able to fit it into the back of a van, but we’re shooting to make it fit into the back of a sedan,” Hayes said.

Finally, the team wants the person in the chair to be able to play in the sand, Hayes said.

“We want the user to be able to raise and lower the seat so that they can touch the sand,” Hayes said.

Each team member creates a design. The team then picks the best aspects of each one and combines them into one final design, Hayes said.

“We’re coming up with individual designs of a full concept, and then making a decision matrix to try to figure out which ones have the better attributes,” he said. “We will then come to a decision for the parts for the final concept.”

One design considered snow bike tires, which are wider than standard bike tires, Hayes said.

Another design used tractor treads instead of wheels to move the chair across the sand, he said.

Cost has been a factor in the parts they are using, he said.

“We’re looking into snow bike tires, standard balloon tires and treads, but we are leaning toward the balloon tires since they are cheaper and easier to build,” he said.

However, the team will include lever drives or a system of gears to make pushing the balloon tires through the sand easier, Hayes said.

Another issue they are facing is clarifying the differences between what the client wants, what the team had in mind and what is efficient, Colburn said.

“We thought it would be best to have a chair that could get the user into the water,” Colburn said. “The chair could go deep enough into the water so that the person can exit the chair and be able to swim. The client was leaning more toward something that could float for safety.”

The team is confident it can reach a compromise and will test the chair after it is built to check for any further problems, Aronson said.

“We’re following the process of design, build, test, report, so we’re aiming to get it done a few weeks before the end of spring quarter and have the chance to go out to the beach and test it out,” he said. “Hopefully, get some people with disabilities to test it out and give us some feedback.”

There is a possibility this will not be the only chair built, Colburn said. Once the chair is finished, it will go back to Bridge II Sports.

“They will decide if it will be marketed,” she said.

There is also local interest in the project, Aronson said.

“The manager of the Avila Beach wheelchairs has expressed interest if this design is valid and works well, he would like us to build him one as well,” Aronson said.

The team is glad to have an opportunity to build this chair, Colburn said.

“For us to be able to give someone access to the water, as well as being able to enjoy the beach, that’s pretty important,” she said.

Morgan Butler contributed to this article.