• May 26th, 2018

HERL Develops Technology to Provide New Opportunities to Wheelchair Users

From assisting individual Veterans navigate health care choices, to organizing adaptive sports events, to advocating for all Veterans on Capitol Hill, Paralyzed Veterans of SlalomAmerica is intimately involved in improving Veterans’ lives. But you may not realize that PVA funds research and development for the benefit of today’s Veterans, and the Veterans of the future. The Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), a joint effort of the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC Health System, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs has benefited from PVA’s generosity and forward-thinking. PVA’s research funds have helped HERL to develop two recent projects that offer Veterans a brighter future.

PneuChair – opening new horizons

PneuChair is waterproof. PneuChair is a technology created by HERL that is opening splash parks, water parks, and other venues previously inaccessible to powered wheelchair users. It’s a power wheelchair that runs on high-pressure tanks of compressed air, like ones used by fire-fighters and other emergency responders. PneuChair runs solely on compressed air – no electronics, no batteries included! The lack of a battery makes the chair lightweight – far easier to lift or transport than a typical power wheelchair. Batteries, of course, are notoriously slow to recharge. PneuChair’s air tank can be filled in 5 minutes or less.

HERL has already licensed PneuChair for use in waterparks, and it was used successfully last season at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, an inclusive waterpark in San Antonio, Texas. The impact of PneuChair at Morgan’s Inspiration Island was beautifully illustrated by an article and video created by the New York Times (both can be found at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/opinion/morgans-wonderland-waterpark-kids-play.html).

These attributes of PneuChair – as well as the high reliability and longevity of pneumatics as compared to batteries and electronics – make it the ideal for long-term care facilities, homeless veterans, waterparks, amusement parks, supermarkets, malls, hospitals, group homes, or just driving locally. PneuChair comes in two versions: a traditional joystick operated wheelchair model and a scooter version (called, appropriately, PneuScooter). HERL is looking for licensees, so don’t be surprised if you see PneuChair in your area soon.

MEBotMEBot – built for the future

Many power wheelchair users are injured each year from tips and falls. Negotiating curbs cuts or driving over uneven surfaces is difficult and can be hazardous. If you use a power wheelchair, you’ve doubtless encountered the situation of having to get across the street but been stymied by a lack of curb cuts. The Mobility Enhancement Robotic Wheelchair, or MEBot is a response to these and other mobility dilemmas. Using six wheels – powered, movable drive wheels with two sets of casters on the front and back – MEBot can act as a front-, middle-, or rear-wheel drive chair depending on the environment.

And most impressively, it tackles curbs and we’re working on negotiating steps. It does this by lifting its front wheels over the curb; moving its middle drive wheels back, propelling the chair forward; lifting the chair so the chair’s weight is over the curb, and then lifting the middle wheels and finally the back wheels over. This process will be automated. The fact that MEBot uses its four caster wheels independently also means it can carefully inch forward, which means it won’t get stuck on ice or gravel.

That’s not all MEBot can do. The same process that lifts the chair over curbs can lift the chair to standing height for better conversations. But MEBot still fits under normal desks, since it has the same footprint as a regular power wheelchair – of course, this means it can fit through the same doorways and hallways any power wheelchair can.

Finally, this powerhouse of a chair has one more trick. Driving over and across slopes can be tricky in any wheelchair, but may be especially hazardous in power wheelchairs, which may be more prone to tipping. MEBot uses a set of sensors to determine the position of the chair on the roadway and adjusts the seat angle accordingly. If you’re traveling across a slope in MEBot, your seat will remain level, whether you’re going up, down, or across.

MEBot was battle tested at the Cybathlon tournament for robotic mobility devices in October 2016, where it finished a difficult obstacle course with distinction.

Neither PneuChair nor MEBot, as well as many other projects under development at HERL, would exist without the generosity of PVA. Everything that HERL accomplishes, it accomplishes for and because of the Veterans of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, side by side with the members of PVA.

Article written by Rory A. Cooper, PhD, Director, HERL and Michael Lain, Communications Specialist, HERLPosterior tilt-sm

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