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Engineering students are supporting a disabled man to scale one of Africa’s highest mountains

Published: 30 July 2018

University of Southampton student engineers are contributing their skills and expertise to an innovative project to design a handcycle to be used by a man with restricted mobility to conquer the tallest mountain in Ethiopia – Ras Dashen.

Christopher Charalambous and his team of fourth year students hope their contribution to the Wild Wheelchairs initiative will support more disabled people to take on adventurous challenges in future.

Alex Lewis is a quadruple amputee after losing his arms and legs in a severe illness, he now advises the University in the design and testing of the next generation of biomechanical aids.

“Limited mobility is something that affects millions of people globally,” he says. “To be able to work with individuals who want to make a positive difference through emerging technologies, in this case a seriously cool hand cycle, is a privilege as it has an end-user in mind. Through briefing, design, testing and the subsequent attempt to cycle up Ras Dashen we will be able to highlight the University but also show that anything is possible when you put a collective of enthusiastic minds to it.

“We will be using the project as a catalyst and inspiration to create a wheelchair manufacturing facility in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, which will transform the lives of disabled people in that region.”  

Christopher and his fellow engineers Gayan Karunarathna, Guillaume Henry, Junaid Mahomed, The Jin Xuan and Tom Parker embarked on the challenging task for their fourth year Group Design Project, the culmination of their Mechanical Engineering (MEng) studies.

“Alex’s team told us about the difficult conditions in Ethiopia, it’s a very mountainous area and the roads are bad. We are using solar power to help him tackle the climb and all the materials have to be light yet robust enough to cope with the terrain,” explains Christopher. “Safety is all-important too. Alex has to clip himself into the handcycle to make sure he’s safe while he’s using it and that was a difficult mechanism to design and test.”

The assignment involved more than the students’ engineering skills. “Team work is all important in a successful group project. Time management was vital as we all had other lectures and exams at the same time but everyone wanted to do their best. It’s taken a lot of hard work but it’s very rewarding to work on a real problem and help Alex achieve his dream,” adds Christopher.

Christopher has secured a summer internship to continue working on the project once the University assignment is over. In 2019 Alex will use the handcycle to ascend the 4,550 metre-high mountain together with Emebet Ale Dires from Ethiopia, a 19 year old woman who was hit by a car at the age of three and lost both her legs from the knee down. She now plays wheelchair basketball, races tricycles and is also keen to take on the challenge.

Find out more about the project on the Design Show website.

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