Micah Johnson has been in a wheelchair for seven years. He was born with muscular dystrophy and could walk until 9th grade, before a few bad falls made a wheelchair the safer option. But in those seven years, he’s become increasingly frustrated with the poor quality of electric wheelchairs.

“I just got a new wheelchair for college a year and a half ago that was very expensive,” he said. “And in the last year and a half I have had to replace 4 batteries, suspension three times, 2 motors, and 6 new tires.”

Those years of frustration have inspired Johnson, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at North Dakota State University, to invent a completely new adaptive-track wheelchair – one that he hopes will give wheelchair users more independence.

Adaptive track wheelchair

Treker: an adaptive-track wheelchair

Introducing Treker: an adaptive-track wheelchair with the ability to go indoors, outdoors, and climb steps.

“It combines all wheelchairs into one,” Johnson said. “The wheelchair is also able to decrease the area of the track for inside use and increase surface area of track for outside and climbing steps.”

The 300 lbs wheelchair is 35.5 inch long, 25 inches wide, and runs on lithium batteries. It features two brushless motors, a turning radius of about 20 inches, and a ground clearance of 4 inches along with a two motor mid-track drive.

Johnson first pitched the idea for Treker at the Innovation Challenge Pitch last October. He said he and his team, which consists of Johnson, Dan Aubol, Tim Liu, Ryan Swanson, Michael Schuh and Jared Kugler, had gathered around to discuss ideas for the project. That night as he lay in bed, Johnson thought back on the track system of the wheelchair, and just like that – “the light bulb came on as to how to build the track wheelchair,” he said.

Currently, Johnson said, there aren’t any adaptive track wheelchair designs out there like that of Treker.

“There is not really any competition,” he said. “There are track wheelchairs, but you cannot even fit them in a house. There are also stair climbing wheelchairs that get stuck in mud and snow really easy.”

Dr. David Wells, a professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at NDSU and the faculty advisor for Treker, said he finds Treker to be a “very good piece of work” with a number of innovative features.

“The mechanism for adjusting the tracks for both indoor and outdoor usage is an excellent piece of engineering design, as is the means for adjusting tilt of the seat,” Wells said. “The Treker is also surprisingly simple, something not always found in early prototypes  —  or in any student-designed apparatus.”

At the NDSU Innovation Challenge visual presentation day, Johnson had a small prototype of Treker built from LEGOs, which he remote controlled up and down a set of stairs to show the capabilities of the adaptive-track. The rough estimates displayed for the cost of building a full size prototype of an adaptive-track wheelchair amounted to a total of $24,000.
adaptive track wheelchair

Johnson’s LEGO prototype for Treker

The future of Treker

If Treker takes home any amount of the $20,000 of total cash prize money from the Innovation Challenge awards, Johnson said he would ideally like to put this towards building this full-size prototype.

In this, he has Dr. Wells full support; the professor stated that he would like to see Treker move forward into a full-scaled operational prototype, that would ideally be built and tested on NDSU’s campus.

When asked if he could see Treker becoming a successful commercial product, Wells said those predictions are always risky. However, he has high hopes for this project.

“This one looks mighty promising to me,” he said. “In my judgment, there are enough unique features and enough cachet to make this a risk worth taking.”

Ultimately, Johnson said, he wants to see this adaptive-track wheelchair completely eliminate the frustrations which he has encountered over and over again for the past seven years.

“I see Treker shaping the future by giving wheelchair-bound people more freedom to be more independent in their everyday life,” he said.

For more information on the Innovation Challenge, see here.

The final awards luncheon will be held on February 26, from 11:30-1:00 at the Fargodome. Register today, here!

Photos courtesy of Marisa Jackels.

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Marisa Jackels