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Health, Science & Tech

Air Power Could Help Wheelchair Users Hit The Beach

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

Water parks are becoming more and more popular across the country.  But not everyone can play.

“Water has really never been a part of the special needs community,” said Morgan’s Wonderland General Manager Ron Morander.

Morgan's Wonderland, a theme park in San Antonio, Tex., is fully accessible to people with compromised mobility. Owners hoped to bring the same success to a water park this summer with five splash pads and one ride, but during development, builders quickly spotted a problem.

Visitors with electric-powered chairs wouldn’t be able to participate on their own.

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA

They turned to the Human Engineering Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, which was already working on a technology that could solve the problem.

Biomedical engineer Rory Cooper runs the lab. His team was already working on a four-wheel scooter powered completely by compressed air.

“So there’s no electronics on it at all,” Cooper said.  “It’s all completely pneumatics.”

Cooper and his team were working on the scooter as a possible replacement for the devices that shoppers borrow at grocery stores and malls. The stores need to replace the heavy batteries on those scooters once or twice a year at a cost of about $300 each.

He realized that if his team could transfer the technology to a powered wheelchair, it could open the door to another level of mobility for users.

“Let’s say you’re a high-school-aged person and you want to go out with friends. Right now, you have to get mom or dad to drive the accessible van for you,” Cooper said. “This is light enough that literally two friends could throw this in the back of a pick up truck or an SUV.”

Cooper said it would be good for power-chair users who are contemplating a move into a long-term care facility.

“A lot of (long-term care facilities) don’t want powered chairs in there, because of the fire hazards and electrical shock hazards and risks," he said. "All those would be eliminated.”

Cooper imagines the chair could also be driven into zero-entry swimming pools or into surf at a beach.

“We’ve actually been contacted by the state of Florida,” Cooper said. “At some of their full-accessible beaches, they have beach chairs but they all have to be pushed by somebody else.”

Cooper said the technology could make air travel easier as well. Airlines don’t like the weight or fire hazard associated with batteries, and wheelchair users don’t like the airlines taking apart their chairs at the gate.

At home, owners would refill their air tanks using a commercially available air compressor. When traveling, they could stop in at a fire station or a sporting goods store for a 5- to 10-minute top off. And if they are at the beach, they can head over to a scuba shop.

Currently there is only one prototype in the lab in Pittsburgh and another more polished version at the water park in San Antonio.

The park has contracted with a traditional wheelchair manufacturer to make nine more, hoping they will become commercially available in the future.

And since the announcement, Morander said they have been flooded with calls.

“The pneumatic chair will just be able to make our guests feel complete," he said.

Or at the very least, they will fill a substantial niche, Cooper said.


Carnegie Mellon University is among five organizations sharing a $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to extend the work of the Autism Sequencing Consortium through 2022.  The Consortium collects and shares genetic data from individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  The grant will allow researchers from CMU to include gene sequencing data from more than 50,000 families.  Research resulting from the effort includes developing new statistical tools that identified 65 genes associated with risk for autism spectrum disorder.

As of last week Fiat Chrysler and Google are offering rides to the public in their self-driving vehicles.  The companies say hundreds of people in the Phoenix area will be given rides and asked for feedback on the experience.  Like the Uber cars in Pittsburgh, all of the vehicles will have backup drivers who can take over in an emergency.  The goal is to learn where people want to go in a self-driving vehicle, how they communicate with it and what kinds of information and controls they want.  Fiat Chrysler and Google announced last spring they would build 100 self-driving Pacifica hybrids minivans.