Series| Superhuman

Robotic wheelchair revolution

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How Rory Cooper Built the Custom Wheelchair

When people think about using wheelchairs, they probably don’t envision a custom design. Instead, they picture a bulky frame, handicap ramps, special vans for transportation with archaic wheelchair lifts, and a design out of the past. The sad truth is wheelchair technology has changed very little in the last 200 years. And over time, these dated designs can cause physical injury and deplete users’ dignity, as they struggle to assimilate to a more normal routine.

Rory Cooper is an engineer seeing past just taking care of the handicapped, and helping those with physical disabilities take better care of themselves. However his path to innovation may not be what you’d expect.

Finding Purpose Through Tragedy

Rory Cooper grew up living a normal, all-American life. Once a distinguished Eagle Scout and track & field runner, he went on to enlist in the United States Army. In 1980, his life took a stark turn.

While riding his bicycle, Cooper was run over by a truck. Suffering from extensive internal damage and a devastating spinal cord injury, he was paralyzed from the waist down. Even in his first wheelchair, which he describes as an “80 pound behemouth,” Cooper knew he could invent something better.

Cooper decided to study Electrical Engineering, eventually receiving his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering with a concentration in Bioengineering.

Cooper says he wanted to create “a lab where we could apply advanced engineering and medical rehabilitation research to improve the mobility, function, and quality of life of individuals with disability, especially our veteran population.” And that’s exactly what he did. Today, Dr. Rory Cooper is the founder and senior researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL). as well as a recognized Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Technology Driving the Custom Wheelchair

Cooper considers his team “integrators of technology,” using advancements from cloud computing, wearable computing, artificial intelligence, ultrasound sensors, laser range finders, and more to optimize each wheelchair to the individual. His goal: to go from concept to a custom-fitted wheelchair. And to do so requires a deep understanding of each person’s needs and an innovative design.

Thanks to the inventions of Rory’s lab, individuals who were once trapped at home or could only move around with the help of a friend or family member pushing their wheelchair, are now able to drive independently. How? By better optimizing the algorithms that filter signals coming from their bodies. Another feature of Cooper’s custom wheelchairs are robotic arms with object recognition. Instead of manually controlling the arm, the autonomous functions allow users to eat, drink, dress, and live a more comfortable and independent life.

Empowering People with Disabilities through Innovative Design

Rory won’t be satisfied by a prototype – as he says, “you can create wonderful technology, but if you can’t get it to market, can’t get it reimbursed, can’t get it into people’s hands, what impact did you really have?”

“One of the things we’ve always believed in is that individuals with disabilities can, you know, be clinicians and engineers and inventors and entrepreneurs and business people. And I wanted that to be a part of our model – that we have people with and without disabilities working together, as we should have in all of society.”

Dr. Rory Cooper

At the heart of Dr. Cooper’s research is his empowering approach. To Cooper and his team, it’s not always about helping people directly, but giving them the tools to live autonomous, independent lifestyles which allow them to better integrate into society with dignity. He’s hopeful that this technology can make it into wheelchairs everywhere and help millions of disabled people and particularly disabled veterans like him.

For more inspirational stories about the amazing advances in medical innovation, check out our whole Superhuman Show now. For another Superhuman defying the odds, meet Adam Gorlitsky, the Exoskeleton Marathon Racer below:

The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer

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