Robotic wheelchair promises vets a better ride
WIESBADEN, Germany — A new robotic wheelchair that shifts its shape and wheel configuration to match terrain could help restore independence for thousands of catastrophically disabled veterans.
The chair, being developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of several new mobility technologies the scientists shared on Monday with medical professionals at Clay Kaserne’s mission command center.
“This type of wheelchair gives you independence, to reach something on a high shelf for example, and to keep the rider safe indoors and outdoors,” said Sivashankar Sivakanthan, a graduate researcher at Pitt. “The benefits add up very quickly.”
The Mobility Enhancement Robotic wheelchair, or MEBot, draws on new developments in robotics and pneumatics to enable wheels and other parts to change configuration with the flick of a switch.
The wheels, for example, can slide forward or backward to negotiate a curb that a normal electric wheelchair couldn’t handle. And by tilting forward, backward and from side to side, the chair can prevent a rider from falling out of the chair.
The movements also make the chair less likely to topple over, which is the No. 1 reason people in wheelchairs go to the emergency room, said Rory Cooper, director of Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories.
Development of the chair is a joint project of the laboratory, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The projected cost of the chair — about $30,000 — puts it on par with current electric wheelchairs, Cooper said. The MEBot is expected to be available for purchase in about five years, he said.
Also at Clay Kaserne on Monday, the Pitt scientists demonstrated a wheelchair powered by compressed air. Besides the environmental advantages, the pneumatic chair can be driven in swimming pools, giving disabled veterans greater access.
Another wheelchair they displayed is designed for racing. It uses hand cranks and woven composite graphite for areas that would normally succumb to the strains sustained during racing.
According to the Paralyzed Veterans of America, there are 100,000 veterans who suffer from spinal cord injury or disease.