Rory Cooper couldn’t have known what to expect as he and his team from the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh prepared to test their state-of-the-art power chair at October’s inaugural Cybathlon in Kloten, Switzerland.
The Cybathlon was conceived as a chance for the world’s leading assistive technology researchers to show off their latest and greatest innovations in several different events: a virtual race using brain control interface, a bicycle race using FES, obstacle courses for people with arm and leg prostheses, an obstacle course for robotic exoskeletons, and the event Cooper was competing in, an extreme obstacle course for power wheelchairs.
That might sound like fun to someone like Cooper, HERL’s founder and director and one of the preeminent researchers and engineers when it comes to assistive technology, but no one knew if people would fill up the hockey arena where the competition was being held — or if the general public even cared.
When Cooper strapped on his helmet and rolled into the arena, the response caught him off guard. “The size of the turnout was amazing,” he recalls. Not only was the arena mostly filled with raucous fans, but a large media contingent was on hand to broadcast the event live across Europe and the internet. “I’ve competed in a lot of athletic competitions — I was a Paralympian in 1988 and I’ve been a coach a number of times — but rolling out there, it felt almost like I was a gladiator.”
In many ways, Cooper is a gladiator for those who rely on assistive technology. Ever since he was paralyzed in 1980, Cooper has devoted himself to pushing assistive technology forward by inventing and improving the products people with disabilities rely on and fighting to raise the public’s awareness of their needs. If you use a wheelchair or any other sort of assistive technology, the chances are extremely high that he has had some direct or indirect influence on its design.
With a list of awards, accomplishments and honors almost as long as the list of patents he has secured, Cooper didn’t need the adulation of the Cybathlon crowd, but its significance was not lost on him. “Hopefully the enthusiasm that was there will drive more people to study science and engineering and help continue the progress that we’ve made,” he says. “If I want anything, I want to grow the positive impact that we can have on people with disabilities.”
Building the Wheelchair Capital
Cooper’s quest to elevate assistive technology began July 23, 1980, when he was paralyzed in a biking accident while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. He eventually made it home to California where he completed his rehab and married the German woman he had fallen in love with. As he studied electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, he grew increasingly aware of the obstacles facing people with disabilities and his knack for solving them. He was particularly interested in the repetitive stress injuries many people suffered from pushing wheelchairs. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and got a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. He completed a fellowship in rehabilitation engineering and science and then taught at California State University in Sacramento. In 1990 he was appointed director of the school’s Human Engineering Laboratory and coordinator of the Rehabilitation Engineering Program. The University of Pittsburgh hired him away in 1994 and soon after he founded HERL.
“It started in my living room and dining room at home with me and two graduate students. My wife kicked us out and the VA gave us an old locker room,” he says. “Literally one of my students got an award last week, and he mentioned that there was a sign over his desk that said ‘Please flush after using.’ I reminded him that my office was the towel cage.”
Even Cooper has trouble reconciling those humble beginnings with the program’s current setup. Six years ago HERL moved into a custom-built space in a swanky Pittsburgh research park alongside Google, Ford and other industry giants. The space is big enough to accommodate the 70 to 100 students, faculty and interns that regularly pass through, and it holds all the design and manufacturing equipment for researchers to see their projects through from inception to completion.
“It is kind of unique in that everything’s housed at one place,” says Jonathan Duvall, a C6 quad completing his Ph.D. at HERL. “You can design something using 3-D CAD software and as soon as you’re done designing it, you go down to the basement to the machine shop and actually build it yourself. We don’t outsource any of our production. We have all the machines there to do it ourselves. So we go from concept and idea to prototyping to testing in the field — and even doing human subject testing to see how people feel about the technology that we develop and how effective it is.”
That unique setup, combined with a dedicated team of researchers and medical professionals, has helped make HERL into the “wheelchair capital” for researchers, according to Jonathan Pearlman, the associate director for product innovation and translation. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shop like we have,” he says. “Even our engineering schools here at Pitt — their jaws just drop when they see the resources we have. … Our setup helps create the kinds of synergies that happen less frequently elsewhere.”
The 70 or so projects going on at any one time run the gamut. Beyond wheelchairs and orthoses, you might catch a glimpse of robots preparing meals, researchers testing home environmental control units or something else you’ve never seen before.
“You really never know what’s going to be talked about the next day,” says Brandon Daveler, a C4-5 quad who completed his master’s at HERL and is now working on his Ph.D.
Daveler and Duvall are two of the many wheelchair users and veterans to call HERL home. From the beginning, Cooper has made it a priority to have the people who actually depend on rehab technology be the ones working to design it. “Dr. Cooper’s always willing to try anything or get any other piece of adaptive equipment that we need,” says Daveler. As an example, he shared how Cooper went out of his way to get a grant for a 3-D laser measurement system to help Daveler and others work more efficiently. “Now I can do it individually, independently, by myself. And it will be more accurate and faster, too. That’s the kind of individual that he is. Always trying to make people more independent.”
Cooper’s commitment to inclusion goes beyond physical access. “Rory certainly serves as a role model, but more than that, he really sets an expectation that students go and travel to conferences and have the support that they need. That is in some cases very transformative for the student with a disability,” says Pearlman. “He is 1,000 percent committed to the lab and to providing opportunities to people with disability to move into research and to developing the best, most advanced assisted technology.”
A Natural Leader
If you could craft a perfect person to lead a facility like HERL, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better model than Cooper. “I heard somebody say that the ideal CEO is somebody with their head in the clouds and their feet planted on the ground,” says Duvall. “As our CEO, the director of our lab, he is a good mix of both of those.”
Being a wheelchair user helps but is just a small piece of a bigger puzzle. His knowledge, skill set and passion, combined with his dedication to solving clinical and real life issues using a scientific approach, are singularly suited to his profession.
“I’ve never worked with somebody who understands both the theoretical side of engineering as well as the practical aspects of just designing something like a good hand rim,” says Pearlman. “That’s a very unique person who can both speak about the very high level, complex mathematical aspects of engineering but also just talk about things in very practical terms.”
Pearlman has worked with Cooper since he came to HERL in 2003 for his Ph.D. and is still impressed by his boss’s passion. “He really enjoys what he does, and it comes naturally to him to come up with ideas, get down in the shop, work with engineers and design and build things.”
“There used to be a time where we would joke that Rory had a sixth sense because when somebody was going to weld something he would come down and suddenly be there and be the guy that wanted to weld up the frame of the wheelchair or show you how to weld.”
That passion extends to helping students and faculty around him hone the way they think about design and manufacturing. “If I come up with an idea for a product or a technology, he’ll skip meetings and sit there and brainstorm about what he thinks about it. He’s never going to brush you off or say he’s got to get to a meeting,” adds Pearlman.
Daveler credits Cooper’s rigorous evaluations and discussions with pushing him to create the best solutions possible. “I’ll get all excited and take a project to him and show him, and he’ll inevitably say, ‘It could be better,’ and ‘Why didn’t you do it this way?’ or ‘Why did you do it this way?’ He’s always trying to make you a better student or advocate or individual or designer or whatever it may be. And that’s just the type of person he is.”
Cooper says his goal is to push the field forward while actually meeting the users’ needs. While that may sound simple coming from him, finding the passion and drive to keep innovating is not easy. “I don’t know how he continually comes up with ideas,” says Daveler. “For example, using air to power a wheelchair. How do you come up with that idea just out of the blue? It’s kind of mind blowing — he takes it that next extra step to figure out a way to address issues that he encounters or other people encounter, and then takes the initiative to come up with the idea for that, to fix it. It’s inspiring, like, ‘What the heck? Why didn’t I think of that?’”
From Prototype to Product
There are so many assistive technology patents and products to have come out of HERL that Cooper often runs into strangers out in public who are using them. “It’s always cool to see,” he says. “If I get a chance to, I try to go up to people and ask them what they think and not tell them who I am. It’s really cool when they say, ‘Oh man, it’s wonderful and it changed my life, I don’t have any pain anymore!’ or ‘Oh, I can go anywhere I want to now!’ I usually say, ‘Thank you for contributing towards my retirement.’”
Developing a useful product and then actually getting it to market is not an easy thing. But again, Cooper has positioned HERL for success. For instance, Gerard Eldering, owner of a venture creation company that has been scouting research universities for promising products for almost 10 years, has helped create a new company, Nexaware, to bring one of HERL’s current projects — the E-scale — to market (see below). He calls HERL “one of the coolest facilities” he has worked with and attributes much of the program’s success to Cooper’s approach and the people he has surrounded himself with. “There a lot of things that we look and listen for when we go in somewhere, but certainly one is the credibility and the standing of the research team. And not just their standing, but are these guys really involved in this particular industry and likely to be on the edge of the innovative thinking. That’s definitely what I saw with this group.”
Being on that edge is critical, but so is the ability to make sure that the research and products are developed with users in mind. Kara Kopplin, senior research manager for research and innovation within the Permobil Group, has gotten a firsthand look at how Cooper’s team emphasizes a user-based approach while collaborating on the Virtual Seating Coach, an app and web-based tool that helps users and clinicians find the proper seating position. “Throughout the (development) process they are getting user feedback and doing qualitative studies and understanding how to refine as they’re doing research and starting to develop solutions,” she says. “I think having that perspective and that engagement with the actual environment and people that would be using these solutions is what’s made them so successful in the past and what has made them really good partners for us with our development efforts, too.”
The Mobility Enhancement Robotic Wheelchair (MEBot), the power chair Cooper and his team showed off in the Cybathlon, is a perfect example of how user feedback can drive the HERL team’s research and design efforts. As Cooper tells it, the MEBot’s origins lie in a conversation he had with wounded Marines who were unable to tour the battlegrounds at Gettysburg because of their wheelchairs. “They were like, ‘Hey, Dr. Cooper, you should be able to solve that problem,’” he says. “It got me to thinking that we need a chair that can be used indoors and be practical but also go outdoors and be practical.”
Cooper addressed some of the same issues early in his career when he worked on the original iBOT, the famed “stair climbing chair” invented by Dean Kamen. But the iBOT’s high price tag and user requirements kept it from getting Medicare approval and restricted who could actually use it. Creating a chair that would allow higher level quads and more demanding users to enjoy the same freedoms, and doing so in a way insurances would pay for, were critical to Cooper’s vision.
With large, center-drive wheels that can reposition themselves to simulate front-, mid-, or rear-wheel drive, and four smaller casters that can move up and down, the MEBot allows users to navigate curbs, steps and rough terrain regardless of their upper body strength. Cooper and HERL have been working on the MEBot for four years, custom designing and building everything from the frame to the electronics on site.
Currently, Cooper and crew are working to incorporate sensors, gyroscopes, cameras and more to make what could truly be considered a smart chair. “It will be able to detect obstacles and do the path planning for you. It’ll tell you whether you can actually climb that obstacle or descend it safely and improve the self-leveling so it’s smoother and more intuitive,” he says. While the team works on reliability, Cooper focuses on key questions. “How do you interface with a chair like this? How would you want to control something this complex? How much do you want to do yourself, and how much do you want to be automated?”
Building such a complex chair with so many high-tech components might seem counterintuitive to the stated goal of building something insurance would pay for, but Cooper insists that is not the case. Over two decades after the iBOT, 3-D printing makes prototyping much easier and cheaper, and the cost of sensors and computing power has dramatically decreased. “The iBOT used four 386 computers,” he says. “I mean, you can almost get that much power on a holiday card now.”
Despite a strong showing, the MEBot did not end up winning the power chair obstacle race at last year’s Cybathlon. Cooper got hung up ascending a set of stairs and ended up losing to a chair that had been specifically designed for the course. He noted that the winning chair would be of little real-world benefit to most users and was happy to point out that the MEBot traversed all the obstacles leading to the stairs with the greatest speed and ease of the finalists. “We tried to design a chair that you or I would buy,” he says. “If I had another month to work on the stairs, we would have had no problem.”
Cooper joked that the MEBot was “redeemed” soon after its defeat when it won the 2016 Blackwood Design Award for “Best New Concept.” The annual awards are run by a Scottish care company and focus on products designed to help people with disabilities and special needs. The judges praised the design “because it was very clear that it was designed by wheelchair users, for wheelchair users, and with very full inclusion from the outset.”
Daveler says that approach is a big part of why he enjoys working on the MEBot and at HERL in general. “I know what it’s like to encounter a single step when you go to a house or a bar or a restaurant or something and you can’t get in, and knowing that feeling, like, ‘Oh, this sucks, I can’t go in here.’ The feeling that one day that barrier is not going to be there because you designed a chair that can go up and over, or around that, is what drives me to make that project and projects like MEBot work.”
Still Going Strong
Nearly 37 years after being paralyzed, and 23 years after founding HERL, Cooper is showing no signs of slowing down. Unlike many people who have been doing something for a long time, he is still on the cutting edge and thrilled to be there. He’s got ideas about robotics and intelligent machines. He’s excited about wearable technology. He wants to make sure people with disabilities can take full advantage of the self-driving car revolution. And of course he wants to keep honing MEBot. He won’t rule out a return to the next Cybathlon. “I think MEBot has a chance to win,” he says. “It’s just getting the algorithms and sensing down better.” In classic Cooper fashion, he added, “But if not, yeah, I’ve got some other ideas that I’m not quite ready to disclose yet.”
“He’s certainly still the same Rory,” says Pearlman. “He is still writing a lot of grants, getting a lot of grants, advising students, and I haven’t seen any change in the day-to-day activities of what his goals are related to his own research.”
Still, as his stature in the community has grown, Cooper has embraced the spotlight to extend his advocacy efforts. Cooper is just as knowledgeable about the inequities of Medicare and Medicaid and more than happy to use his connections to get the ears of key policy makers.
“As a leader he has grown and diversified,” says Pearlman. “He has started to get involved in other types of technology and broader initiatives with the Department of Defense. He understands that his influence can be broader and that just as his career has moved forward and his connections have grown, that he can be involved in committees at higher levels and start to focus on more policy initiatives.”
Despite all of this, Cooper continues to amaze all those who know him with his humble approach.
“He’s known all around the world, but he still takes time to talk with his students one-on-one and to write letters of recommendation,” says Duvall. “He even takes time to make networking connections to help his students get jobs in the government or in the industry or in some other school. For all he’s accomplished, he’s still an individual friend and mentor. He takes the time to help his students and the other investigators in the lab succeed.”
Cooper sees no reason why any of that should change. “My philosophy is, as long as I’m still having fun, if people are willing to help give us grants, and I’ve got new ideas, I’m not planning to go anywhere.”
Over the course of 23 years, HERL’s research has led to numerous products and advancements that have impacted hundreds of thousands of wheelchair users and clinicians. From power assist to ergonomic push rims to the seemingly obvious mechanisms behind folding chairs, if an innovation has moved the field forward and helped people, there is a good chance it came through HERL or someone connected with it. Here are a few notable products:
SmartWheel – An instrumented handrim used by clinicians to better understand the physical demands of pushing a wheelchair and the causes of repetitive stress.
Natural-Fit Pushrim – An ergonomic pushrim designed to relieve stress on the pusher’s upper body.
Pathlock – A system to help wheelchair users drive on a slope more easily by biasing the casters (came to market as the Glide Suspension Fork from TiLite in 2014).
PerMMA – The Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance was the first wheelchair with two coordinated, fully robotic arms that could be controlled by the user.
Strong Arm – A wheelchair attachment to help wheelchair users transfer in and out of their chair with less caregiver assistance.
Virtual Seating Coach – An app and web-based tool that helps users and clinicians find the proper seating position (marketed by Permobil).
E-Scale – Hockey puck-like disks that can be placed under a user’s bed to provide easy, accurate weights (being developed by Nexaware).
PneuMobility – A project using compressed air as an alternative to batteries to power assistive devices like the PneuChair and PneuScooter.
The E-Scale: The Wait for Your Weight May Be Over
As a C6 quad, Jonathan Duvall is all too aware of how difficult it can be for a wheelchair user to find an accessible scale. “The only way to know really whether you’re gaining weight or losing weight is if your pants start feeling tight or start feeling loose,” he says.
That may soon change thanks to the E-Scale, a new device developed by Duvall and other HERL researchers that takes the hassle out of weighing. “It’s four little hockey puck-like devices that would go under the legs of a bed, and wirelessly measure the change in weight every time somebody gets in or out of the bed,” explains Duvall, who is developing the E-scale as part of his Ph.D. dissertation. “So it allows wheelchair users to not have to buy a roll-on scale or a lift scale and to monitor their weights via an app on their phone.”
Jonathan Pearlman, HERL’s associate director for product innovation and translation, got the idea watching his paraplegic stepfather struggle with gaining weight as he ages. “If you dig deeper into the research, what you find is that there’s a lot of evidence that weight feedback helps people maintain weight. I think that should be no surprise, but from a research standpoint there’s also strong evidence that says if you have weight feedback, it helps facilitate weight loss. And there’s just virtually no way for wheelchair users to get their weight on a regular basis,” he says. “We see the E-Scale as something that could potentially have a really large scale impact for wheelchair users, but it also has applicability for the general population.”
Fellow researchers and entrepreneurs seem to agree. The project has received numerous grants and was optioned to Nexaware, a Richmond, Virginia-based startup for commercialization. Gerard Eldering, the manager for Nexaware, says the company has raised over $250,000 from investors and hopes to have beta units in the hands of testers this summer.
PneuMobility: Riding on Air, Literally
An air-powered wheelchair that can function in the water? It may sound like James Bond’s latest gadget or something from a Jetsons-eque future world, but thanks to the HERL researchers, it is already a reality. The PneuChair air-powered chair made its debut Apr. 7 at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, the accessible theme park in San Antonio, Texas.
“I’m pretty excited about it because now a power chair user could drive into a pool that has a ramp, or you could go to the beach and drive into the water or play along the water, or you could now go to a water park and drive through the fountains,” says Rory Cooper, HERL’s director. “Just think if you’ve got a kid, how many of those water fountains or water features do little kids play in? Now in a power chair you can be out there with them.”
Brandon Daveler, a C4-5 quad and the lead mechanical design engineer on the PneuMobility (not affiliated with this magazine) project of which the PneuChair is a product, says he doesn’t envision the air-powered chair as a replacement for complex power chairs or scooters — there is also a scooter, the PneuScooter — at this stage. With a range of 2-3 miles on smooth flat surface, Daveler suggests air power could be an alternative for places like nursing homes, veterans homes, airports or grocery stores. Despite the limited range, air offers a number of advantages. First, the high-pressure air canisters are easier to replace and faster to recharge than batteries. Second, without any electronics, maintenance decreases, and it’s easier to perform maintenance on the chair because many of the components are available at normal hardware stores.
Initially, 10 PneuChairs produced by Stealth Technologies of Burnet, Texas, a division of Pride Mobility, will be available for use at Morgan’s Inspiration Island.