Wheelchairs and mobility assist device development appears to be speeding up. Research and study projects by engineers and medical professionals keep tweaking the component technologies. Last year we wrote about SoftWheel’s in-wheel suspension system, the ReWalk system that allows users to move standing up, and the iBot two-wheeled balanced-controlled wheelchair. So what’s next? How about power from an alternate energy source?
Engineers at the University of Pittsburgh‘s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) have developed the Pneuchair, a waterproof wheelchair that runs on compressed air. HERL is a collaboration between the Veteran’s Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System (UPMC). HERL was working on a compressed air mobility device when it was approached by representatives of Morgan’s Wonderland, a new theme park in San Antonio, Texas for special needs people; it’s the first accessible family theme park in the U.S. The park was seeking mobility devices that would allow people with disabilities to enjoy a splash park on its grounds. Traditional electric wheelchairs are not suited for wet environments.
Ten of the PneuChairs are now in use at Inspiration Island Splash Park, which opened April 7, 2017. The air-powered chairs weigh just 80 pounds and can recharge in about 10 minutes compared with about 8 hours for a traditional electric wheelchair. The maximum distance the chair can travel is approximately 3 miles, about one third the distance of a standard electric chair. The PneuChair doesn’t use special electronics. Any broken component can be replaced at a local hardware store, according to Brandon Daveler, the lead mechanical design engineer on the project.
Now that the first PneuChairs are in service, representatives from HERL and the nonprofit SOAR (Sports Outdoor and Recreation) are investigating the use of the air-powered chair in personal care homes, shopping venues, grocery stores, and airports.