Unique Lab Creates Accessibility and Mobility Solutions for People with Disabilities

Team Develops Assistive Tech, from Robotic Wheelchairs That Climb Curbs to Brain-Machine Interfaces


Dr. Rory Cooper was only 20 years old and on his way to visit his future wife when a bus forced the bicycle he was riding off a German road. As a result of the accident, Dr. Cooper, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, suffered a severe spinal cord injury and became paralyzed from the waist down. He says the wheelchair options available to him at the time of his accident were mass-produced, 80-pound, metal behemoths. These one-size-fits-all chairs were hardly a good match for his, or his friends’, lifestyles. So he set out to build something better.

“In this case, necessity really was the mother of invention,” says Dr. Cooper. 

From Idea to Innovation

After completing his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering with a concentration in bioengineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Dr. Cooper headed east to open the lab at the University of Pittsburgh that he still leads today: the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL).

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, HERL is a one-stop shop that takes accessibility and mobility projects from idea to fabrication. And based on the lab’s extensive list of projects, patents, and successful startup launches, it’s easy to see how such an environment can easily lend itself to innovation. With 30,000 square feet of dedicated space, the lab is home to dozens of full-time employees as well as undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate researchers.

The Benefits of Diversity

Dr. Cooper says that diversity and broad academic expertise were goals he had from the very ideation of HERL.

“My original goal was to have all the fields of rehabilitation involved in the lab,” says Dr. Cooper, “from mechanical and electrical engineers to clinicians and M.D.s.”  

Both Dr. Cooper and Dr. Duvall, a postdoctoral researcher at HERL, attribute the creativity of the lab to not only the diversity of fields represented in it but also the diversity of gender, ethnicity, culture, and level of impairment in its staff. A large portion of the researchers, including Dr. Duvall and Dr. Cooper, have disabilities. Dr. Cooper says these perspectives are invaluable when it comes to making sure an idea that works on paper still makes sense once it moves to fabrication.

Soon after opening the lab, Dr. Cooper found that even that wasn’t enough. According to HERL postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jorge Luis Candiotti, the lab is now home to nearly 15 disciplines, including some focused on business aspects. Candiotti says that this mixed disciplinary approach helps them to see beyond their own perspectives when designing and then to create more valuable products for end users. 

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Annmarie Kelleher, occupational therapist and clinical rehabilitation specialist (left), Dr. Jonathan Duvall, and Dr. Jorge Candiotti (right) discuss the MeBot chair at HERL.
Image credit: HERL

Candiotti says this approach also helps them achieve one of HERL and Dr. Cooper’s key goals: getting these products to market. Without that, says Dr. Cooper, the innovations made in their lab would never be able to reach the people in their local and international communities who really need them.

Community-Driven Projects

It’s these communities, says Dr. Cooper, that they head to first when looking for new ideas in the lab. From there, Dr. Cooper says they run a simple calculation to determine which projects to pursue and which to leave behind.

“How big will the impact be?” says Dr. Cooper. “And how many people will this idea be able to impact?”

At least 50 projects are in the works at any given time, says Dr. Duvall. The projects vary widely, from improving wheelchair design, such as the compressed air-powered Pneuchair or the terrain-adaptive MEBot, to designing assistive technologies for caretakers, such as a project called StrongArm that helps caretakers lift a loved one out of a wheelchair. The lab also uses virtual reality and brain-computer interface technology to evaluate and design ways for the human body to respond more intuitively to the assistive technology being created.

“How big will the impact be? And how many people will this idea be able to impact?”

Dr. Rory Cooper, Human Engineering Research Laboratories

In addition to projects that the researchers can fabricate with the fully equipped, in-house machine shop, research is also being done on problems that are less easily quantified, such as Dr. Duvall’s research on sidewalk roughness and how it relates to accessibility. At HERL, Dr. Duvall evaluates different roughness grades by simulating the environment and strapping accelerometers on a test wheelchair to see how much different degrees of unevenness affect the riding experience. Dr. Duvall says that for this, and many other HERL projects, he turns to MATLAB® and Simulink® to crunch the data and help him simulate the most accessible sidewalk paths in different cities. 

Once the brainchild of HERL, this project has now transformed into the company PathVu, of which Dr. Duvall is the cofounder. PathVu is one of 11 startups that the lab has helped launched since its founding. 

New Horizons and New Perspectives 

Looking to the future of assistive technologies, Dr. Duvall and Dr. Candiotti say they’re seeing a trend toward autonomous assistive vehicles as well as more customization for the user.

“Our goal is to help users gain more mobility and function,” says Dr. Cooper, “so that they are provided opportunities to expand their own environments.” 

HERL's MEBot wheelchair adapts to different terrains.

HERL's MEBot wheelchair adapts to different terrains.
Image credit: HERL

One way the researchers propose to achieve this kind of customization is to design a standard model of a wheelchair that could then be customized based on the individual user’s needs. Through the use of Model-Based Design with Simulink, improvements in the design of one wheelchair can be easily adapted for new designs. 

“Our goal is to help users gain more mobility and function, so that they are provided opportunities to expand their own environments.”

Dr. Rory Cooper, Human Engineering Research Laboratories

Another approach they’re already using is to research the benefits of creating brain-machine interfaces for users. These technologies work by implanting small integrated circuits with an array of sensors into the motor cortex—the part of the brain in charge of signaling movement—of individuals with impaired movement of their upper limbs. By thinking about moving the limbs, users spark neural signals that the implanted chips are then able to interpret and relay to a nearby machine or assistive technology to create movement. In the trial, users learn to move computer cursors and navigate virtual environments, and Dr. Duvall and Dr. Candiotti say this technology could eventually be used to allow these users to operate their own wheelchairs as well. 

When reflecting on how much has changed since he opened HERL 25 years ago, Dr. Cooper says that what has had the biggest impact is both the advancement of technology and software and changing attitudes toward those with disabilities. 

“There’s more awareness now than there was,” says Dr. Cooper. “And people are more open to recognizing the capabilities of these people and affording them opportunities. The combination of that and the advances in technology has led us to the creation of new and hopefully beneficial technologies.”