Researchers hope to build a better wheelchair

Researchers will appear on Capitol Hill today with a robotic device designed to make life easier for the disabled


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Modern wheelchairs are lightweight, ergonomically designed chariots that require the use of arms rather than legs for mobility.

Recognizing the paramount importance of arms in the process, local researchers have been working to reduce wrist, elbow and shoulder injuries that plague most wheelchair users.

But a robotic wheelchair in development at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh is pushing technology to a new level by giving wheelchairs their own arms.

Today two researchers at HERL will visit Capitol Hill to demonstrate the Personal Mobility Manipulation Appliance to senators and their staffs.

Hongwu Wang and Garrett Grindle, University of Pittsburgh doctoral students, created the black wheelchair equipped with four computers, sensors and computer-driven arms and hands. It's scheduled to undergo human testing in about six months.

The new chair is designed to give more independence to people with serious disabilities. The robotic arms can open doors, retrieve food and do other chores. Controlled by eye motion, voice prompts or joystick, the wheelchair reduces the need for assistance from caregivers, who can control it over the Internet when help is needed.

The new chair is proof that human engineering lab is on a roll with its mission to improve wheelchair technology.

In years past, up to 80 percent of wheelchair users suffered carpal tunnel, rotator cuff and elbow injuries. But with the lab's help, the injury rate has dropped to 50 percent, said lab Director Rory A. Cooper, who's used a wheelchair since 1980 when a truck struck him while he was riding a bicycle in Germany.

This week the Department of Veterans Affairs named the lab as a VA Center of Excellence for Wheelchairs and Associated Rehabilitation Engineering. That means the laboratories on the Veterans Administration Pittsburgh Healthcare Highland Drive campus will receive core funding of $1 million a year for five more years to help meet its annual budget of about $4 million. It represents the third time the lab has received the funding stream.

Operated in partnership with the Veterans Administration, University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the lab holds about a dozen patents, with six other inventions in use through licensing agreements, Dr. Cooper said during a recent tour of its nine laboratories.

While its primary focus remains wheelchair improvements, the lab also is developing a better prosthetic foot for the U.S. military. Two other Pitt doctoral students also are studying the biomedical stress people with disabilities suffer when they transfer their weight from wheelchair to chair, bed or commode.

Padmaja Kankipati and Yen-Sheng Lin said they're trying to figure out the best head and hip maneuver during the weight-transfer process to eliminate odd angles and injuries that can hamper wheelchair users.

For years, the lab, now with a staff of 70, including students, has worked to reduce the size and weight of wheelchairs while adding ergonomic improvements including better hand rungs for the wheels.

"The real concept is to make the wheelchair fit the user's body and lifestyle," Dr. Cooper said. "That promotes function so people can go back to work and go back to school and get back into the community."

In his newly designed wheelchair, Dr. Cooper said he's improved his own mobility. His year-old wheelchair weighs less than 20 pounds and features carbon-fiber backing that supports his lumbar region while allowing him a larger range of motion.

The lab also creates wheelchair components, including a computerized caster that compiles mileage, among other data. Dr. Cooper said the caster revealed he puts about 4 miles a day on his wheelchair, while most wheelchair users travel about a mile a day.

"Our ultimate goal," Dr. Cooper said, "is to see people with disabilities have as equal an opportunity to participate in society as anyone else."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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