The Accidental Humanitarian: New faculty member Amos Winter, SM ’05, PhD ’11, tackles the “crazy hard” engineering challenges of the developing world.

From MIT Technology Review, by Matthew Hutson SM ’03, June 18, 2013

Walk into Amos Winter’s lab on any given day and you might find the assistant professor of mechanical engineering working on a water purification system, a high-efficiency diesel tractor engine, prosthetic feet, or a prosthetic knee that enables users to walk with a natural gait, all of which he’s designing to help people in the developing world. But Winter didn’t set out to be a do-gooder. It happened by accident, a twist of fate—happier but no less unexpected than a fall from a tree, a motorcycle crash, or a tropical fever, any of which might leave someone in need of the invention for which he’s become best known.

In 2005, Winter had just earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT and wanted to spend the summer with his then girlfriend, who was in Tanzania. MIT’s Public Service Center helped him get there by hooking him up with two organizations that assist people with disabilities; they needed someone to assess the state of wheelchair technology in that country. Winter talked to manufacturers and asked users how well existing products fit their needs—and saw a lot of room for improvement.

Conventional wheelchairs worked fine indoors, but they were hard to use in rural areas because they wouldn’t let users traverse uneven ground. Hand-pedaled tricycles were useful in those conditions, but they were too large to work indoors. The missing product was a chair that worked well on both flat and rough terrain and was small enough to use inside. It would also need to be simple and easily repairable—and cost approximately $200, since other wheelchairs being distributed by aid organizations cost between $150 and $300. Some high-end off-road wheelchairs have a multi-gear system like the kind you’d find on a mountain bike, allowing users to adapt easily to different terrain. But that wasn’t an option here: 10-speed gear trains are expensive, hard to find in many developing countries, and not rugged enough.

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