Rory Cooper’s Wheelchair Tech Makes the World More Accessible

For more than 25 years, Rory Cooper has been developing technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Cooper began his work after a spinal cord injury in 1980 left him paralyzed from the waist down. First he modified the back brace he was required to wear. He then turned to building a better wheelchair and came up with an electric-powered version that helped its user stand up. He eventually discovered biomedical engineering and was inspired to focus his career on developing assistive technology. His inventions have helped countless wheelchair users get around with more ease and comfort.

Technologies that Cooper has developed include the SmartWheel and the VCJ-CA, a variable-compliance joystick with compensation algorithms. The SmartWheel attaches to a manual wheelchair to measure the force of pushes, push frequency, stroke length, smoothness, and speed of both the push and the wheelchair. Wheelchair athletes use the data to optimize their performance. It is also helpful in determining adjustments to minimize stress injuries for more typical users. The VCJ-CA lets users customize the driving controls of electric-powered wheelchairs and is used today in just about every such chair.

These days, Cooper and his team at the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories are working to develop advancements including a wheelchair that can travel on rough terrain. Cooper founded the HERL in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

About Rory Cooper

Employer Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh

Title Director

Member grade Life Fellow

Alma mater California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo.

For those and other “extensive contributions to wheelchair technology that have expanded mobility and reduced secondary injuries for millions of people with disabilities,” Cooper received this year’s IEEE Biomedical Engineering Award.

The award “recognizes the importance of the work I and other engineers do,” he says, adding that he is humbled by the honor. The award also recognizes that “people with disabilities are an important part of our society. Hopefully [my receiving this honor] encourages other people to continue the work being done in this field.”

Cooper himself is not done yet. He says that although technology, medicine, and society have evolved significantly in the way they can help people with disabilities, “there’s still a lot of opportunity for technology to further improve people’s lives and health.” And, as HERL director and a professor of bioengineering, physical medicine, rehabilitation, and orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, he plans to develop more helpful tools.

Changing the course of his career

The bicycle accident that damaged Cooper’s spine happened while he was stationed in Germany in his fourth year with the U.S. Army. He left the Army soon after and returned to the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1985 in electrical engineering from California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo. He went on to receive a master’s degree from Cal Poly in the same subject in 1986, taking classes while working as an instrumentation and control engineer at Pacific Gas and Electric in Diablo Canyon, Calif. During his graduate studies, at the recommendation of a friend, he took a biomedical engineering class and fell in love with the field, he says. He also had started teaching apprentices at PG&E the basics of control systems and electronics—which provided another type of inspiration.

Educating the apprentices “was a great thing for me and perhaps a mistake for PG&E because I found that I really enjoyed teaching,” Cooper says, laughing.

Thinking he’d rather teach than continue an industry career as he had planned, he headed to the University of California, Santa Barbara, for a Ph.D. There he began developing a device that came to be called the SmartWheel. The mechanical instrument has a complex set of sensors integrated with a single-board computer with wireless communication. SmartWheels are mounted onto wheelchairs.

“I started to develop the technology because I wanted to try to win a medal in the Paralympics,” Cooper says. “SmartWheel measures the wheelchair’s propulsion dynamics, and I could use the data collected to optimize the biomechanics of my wheelchair and my body motions.”

The SmartWheel measures the forces and torques applied by athletes to the push rim (the part on the chair individuals use to turn the wheels). An encoder measures the wheel’s speed and orientation. Athletes can use the data to optimize their performance by adjusting their body position, customizing the design of their chair, and positioning and orienting their wheels with respect to their shoulders.

It worked for him: He received a bronze Paralympic medal in wheelchair racing in 1988.

But Cooper hadn’t perfected the device when, after graduation in 1989, he joined California State University in Sacramento as a faculty member.

Then he met Charles Robinson at an IEEE conference that year in Seattle. The IEEE Life Fellow was a rehabilitation research career scientist in the Department of Veterans Affairs. He invited Cooper to join his team as a postdoctoral researcher. Cooper accepted the position and worked both jobs for approximately five years.

Cooper eventually left Cal State while continuing to work part time at the VA. In 1994 he joined the University of Pittsburgh as a professor, establishing the HERL that year to develop and enhance technology that promotes people’s mobility, function, and inclusion.

“The lab started with me and two graduate students,” he says, “and now about 70 engineers, clinicians, researchers, and students are working on projects.”

One of those projects was continuing development of the SmartWheel. The device became commercially available in 2000 and was used by the U.S. Paralympic athletes during training for the 2021 games in Tokyo.

Cooper and fellow researchers saw unintended health benefits for manual wheelchair users who employed a SmartWheel. It can help reduce carpal tunnel syndrome and rotator cuff injuries, he says. SmartWheels are now commonly used by physical therapists in more than 100 clinics to optimize wheelchair setup and push style to reduce repetitive stress injuries, he says.

Making electric-powered wheelchairs inclusive

HERL researchers have produced many life-changing advancements.

“One technology that I’m particularly proud of is the variable-compliance joystick with compensation algorithms,” Cooper says. Before the VCJ-CA was invented, the controls of electric-powered wheelchairs were analog, not digital. It was difficult to customize a wheelchair that had analog controls, he says. If the user had even the slightest tremor or tic, the wheelchair could move unintentionally. Many people needed someone to operate the wheelchair for them, he says.

“There were a lot of people who were reliant on others to push their wheelchair or to operate its controls for them,” Cooper says. “But these wheelchair users wanted independent mobility, so I began studying how to make this possible.”

The VCJ-CA is a joystick whose hardware and software can be customized to fit each user’s needs. For example, individuals with restricted hand or arm movement can tailor the stiffness of the joystick according to their reach, strength, and control. The algorithms allow individuals to customize their wheelchair’s speed, braking, acceleration, and turning capabilities. The algorithms also can adapt to a user’s tremor, range of motion, ability to generate motion or force, and ability to control the direction of their arm, hand, or finger.

“The VCJ-CA is now used in almost every electric-powered wheelchair in the world—which is pretty cool,” Cooper says. “People who were dependent upon others can now drive independently.”

Bringing stability and safety to wheelchair users

3 people sitting in wheelchairs and 1 man standingCooper (second from the left) and his colleagues—David Constantine, Jorge Candiotti, and Andrin Vuthaj (standing)—at the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories working on the MEBot.Abigail Albright

The most common cause of emergency-room visits by wheelchair users is falling from the chair or tipping over, Cooper says.

“This often happens when the individual’s wheelchair hits thresholds in doorways, drives off small curbs, or transitions from a sidewalk to a ramp,” he says.

Since 2013, he and his team have been working on the Mobility Enhancement Robotic Wheelchair to minimize such injuries.

Known as the MEBot, the wheelchair can climb curbs up to 20 centimeters high and can self-level as it drives over uneven terrain. It does so thanks to six wheels that move up and down plus two sets of smaller omnidirectional wheels in the front and back. The wheelchair’s larger, powered wheels can reposition themselves to simulate front-, mid-, or rear-wheel drive.

User trials were completed last year. Cooper says the team received positive feedback, and one individual compared it to riding a magic carpet. The MEBot will become available within the next five years, Cooper predicts.

The importance of IEEE

Cooper joined IEEE as a Cal Poly freshman. The university’s engineering department had a study room specifically for IEEE student members, he says.

“It was a good place for me to study, because everyone there was pursuing a degree in electrical engineering,” he says. “The professors at Cal Poly would also often approach IEEE student members to join their research and development teams.”

After graduation, he began attending IEEE conferences and publishing papers in the organization’s journals. He has become more active during his four decades as a member. He has served as a senior associate editor of theIEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, for example, and he is a member of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society’s standards committee.

He says he maintains his membership partly because IEEE produces “great publications, enhances education, and works on standards that change people’s lives.”

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