Reinventing the Wheelchair: Making the First Human-Powered, Stair-Climbing Wheelchair

Growing up, Maker Works member Amer Abughaida had a classmate in Saudi Arabia who used a wheelchair to get around. However, their school’s two-story building did not have an elevator, which meant that it was a struggle each time the classmate had to go up and down stairs. The school staff tried to implement various solutions, including creating a ramp by putting a wooden board over the stairs, as well as simply carrying the classmate up and down the stairs, but each potential solution ended up being potentially very dangerous, too. In addition to the threat of injury each time the classmate needed to go up and down stairs, it also meant that he was dependent on others in order to get around.

It was this challenge—the challenge of improving independence and mobility in an affordable way—that got the wheels in Amer’s head turning. People who use wheelchairs can face barriers to accessing not only education, but also transportation, healthcare, and other basic resources. And while public buildings in the US are required to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals may have limited access to public buildings that were constructed before 1990 as well as residential buildings that are not wheelchair accessible.

In 2006, Amer began working on a novel idea; a human-powered wheelchair that would allow users to go up and down stairs on their own.

The idea quickly translated into seemingly endless numbers of calculations, designs, iterations, and re-iterations. Over the next eight years, he would progress through four different iterations of the project as he worked it in around jobs and school. (In 2014, he completed a master’s degree in engineering from The University of Michigan.)

Early iterations of the Pelico wheelchair.

In June of 2014, after completing a fifth iteration, Amer decided to start working on the project full-time, which was now officially registered as Pelico. He hired undergraduate engineering students from the University of Michigan and they worked together to design a sixth iteration of the project, which they then built out into their first physical prototype using many of the tools at Maker Works.

So, what does that prototype look like?

Amer’s wheelchair may look similar to a traditional wheelchair at a glance; it has two large rear wheels and two small front wheels and on flat surfaces, it functions in a conventional way. However, take a closer look at the rear wheels, and you’ll see that each rim, rather than being one continuous piece of metal, actually has a series of joints:


When it’s time to go up or down stairs, each of these joints is capable of snapping inwards towards the axis of the wheel and creating a 90 degree angle—just the size of a standard step. At this point, the flat surface created by the joint lies parallel to the flat surface of the step, allowing the user to then securely turn the wheel clockwise and rotate up to the next step, with the next joint snapping inward into place. At the same time, the two smaller front wheels of the chair are attached to legs that extend forward, resting on the step below, and further stabilizing the chair. This process is repeated until the top of the stairs is reached.

Check out a video of Amer demonstrating the process on a model of the chair here:

Pelico is currently working on a seventh iteration of the chair, and is collaborating with students at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne and The University of Michigan. At Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne, five students are working on the braking system as their undergraduate capstone project. At The University of Michigan, students are working on the front wheel assembly as part of an upper-level, project-based mechanical engineering course. Amer expects to test the newest version of the wheelchair by the end of 2015.

Want to learn even more about the incredible work going on at Pelico? Visit them online at, or contact Amer directly at