Caltech student Tom Oliver is having a busy summer.

As an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he’s working with engineers to invent a robot that may someday travel the surfaces of other worlds.

Building on the technology behind the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that are currently exploring the surface of Mars for evidence of life, oliver’s JPL team is designing a new type of rover that would be able to study the sides of cliffs — both on the surface of the Red Planet and on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the galaxy’s only object other than Earth known to have a dense atmosphere and stable bodies of water.

Meanwhile, Oliver is continuing to develop another feat of engineering with immediate and tangible benefits for life in some of the more remote corners of our own planet. He and other students or recent graduates of Caltech and the Art Center College of Design have found a way to turn simple mountain bikes into inexpensive, effective and potentially lifesaving wheelchairs for disabled people in the world’s poorest countries.

The idea started coming to life in late 2006 as part of a class titled Product Design for the Developing World, which paired small groups of Caltech undergraduates with students from Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala to develop products that could help lift people out of poverty.

During one videoconference conversation, a Landivar student suggested helping the disabled, many of whom literally drag themselves along the streets of Guatemala and other underdeveloped nations for lack of any kind of wheelchair.

“It was said the bicycle industry is huge in developing countries, so we thought ‘Why not try to use existing bike frames and make a chair out of that?’ We threw a couple of frames on the white board and it all started from there,” said Rudy Roy, a Pasadena High School alumnus who has since graduated from Caltech and now works at E-Solar, an IdeaLab company in Pasadena.

By the end of that semester, the group had already developed a working chair. Roy didn’t want all that hard work going to waste so, with the blessing of Caltech Professor Ken Pickar, he continued the project as a senior thesis with Oliver’s older brother, Daniel.

“It wasn’t as math- and science-related as some of the hard courses we were used to taking,” said Roy, but, “it was real-world work, and all of us were drawn to the potential for it to do some good.”
Last fall, work on improving the chair and manufacturing techniques continued with the next group of students in Pickar’s class, which included Oliver.

Meanwhile, Roy and the other original designers teamed up with then-Art Center College of Design student Charlie Pyott to form Intelligent Mobility International (IMI), a Pasadena-based nonprofit organization for manufacturing and distributing the chairs.

IMI has since partnered with the Transitions Foundation, a social services organization for the poor and disabled in Antigua, Guatemala. As of this writing, Caltech student Joey Koehler is starting the first stages of wheelchair production there.

“The need is overwhelming,” said John Bell, founder of a disabilities services group in Guatemala which IMI has partnered with to produce and distribute wheelchairs. “The government does not have any system in place to provide for the disabled. We can’t keep up with the demand.”

Of more than 13 million people in that Central American nation — a place ripped apart by civil war from 1960 to 1996 — as many as 1 million are at least partially disabled due to shootings, vehicle and workplace accidents, lack of basic prenatal health care and poor nutrition.

The student founders of IMI are not the first to try to tackle this problem. For more than two decades, the Free Wheelchair Mission has been distributing inexpensive but very breakable wheelchairs made from parts shipped from China — some metal bars, a few nuts and bolts, wheels, casters and a plastic lawn chair for the seat. Transitions Foundation workers have also been manufacturing wheelchairs for years, using a more durable model that requires $350 to $500 and more than 100 hours to finish each chair.

So the engineering challenge that began in the classroom at Caltech was two-fold: Create a wheelchair strong enough to last a lifetime, and do it as cheaply
as possible.

Though only in its first phase of production, the IMI wheelchair design already requires less than $150 and 10 hours per chair — with Roy projecting costs to drop over time to closer to $50 each.
“Our wheelchair is a third of the cost and takes a tenth of the time to build,” said IMI Executive Director Danielle Yariv, who was brought in late last year for her experience with economic development projects in Latin America.

She’s not the only one bragging.

“Intelligent Mobility International personifies the innovation potential at Caltech,” wrote school President Jean-Lou Chameau in a letter to help the organization raise funds. “The drive and determination of these students is unprecedented, and I am proud to support them.”

But for all the work that’s gone into it, what drives the success of the IMI wheelchair model is its simplicity.

Mountain bike parts are sturdy, cheap and readily available in most countries, including Guatemala. After only a few cuts to two bike frames and a small amount of welding, the chair’s basic frame is complete.

To increase cost-savings, IMI engineers have also gone against the trend of outsourcing labor. Key to the project was their design of a specialized workbench that controls the process, allowing workers with little education or training to produce and maintain the chairs. Their goal is to employ the very same people the product is designed for: the poor and disabled.

“The idea is to have everything made locally with locally available materials,” said Roy.

This self-sustainable production model also reflects the mission of the Transitions Foundation, which other than Bell is primarily run by disabled people whose lives have been changed by some of the same wheelchairs, prosthetics and health services they now provide for others. The group already has a fully functioning workshop where IMI can begin producing chairs and a backlog of clients who need them, said Bell.

“We want for people not only to regain their mobility, but to become empowered members of society again,” said Oliver, who over the summer is using a grant by the Strauss Foundation to fine-tune the chair’s design and network with college students around the world in the hopes of bringing their work to other troubled nations.

Another innovation to foster individual independence and cut costs of production is the use of microenterprise loans. In many parts of the world, nongovernmental organizations are making such loans — often $30 or less — to enable people to feed and care for themselves, such as by growing corn or raising a few chickens. When they eventually pay back the money, those funds can then go toward helping another.

“The idea is that the poor are creditworthy,” explained Yariv, who is also connected to Caltech. She is the daughter of Amnon Yariv, a professor of applied physics and a pioneer of optoelectronics, which involves the development of devices that can detect and control light.

Recipients of IMI chairs who are able to work will be given job training and asked to try to repay a small amount — maybe 5 percent — of the cost of their wheelchair.

“We wanted to come up with a solution, not just a wheelchair,” said Oliver.

For more information about Intelligent Mobility International or to make a donation, call (626) 665-2747 or visit intelligentmobility.org.