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Pittsburgh researchers develop advanced wheelchairs, other assistive tech for veterans

Written by Kathleen J. Davis/WESA | Jun 4, 2019 4:37 PM

Rory Cooper demonstrates a robotic-assisted transfer device, a machine to help wheelchair-bound people move in and out of their chairs. (Kathleen J. Davis/WESA)

There are more than a dozen research laboratories run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs across the country, all with the common goal of developing new ways to help veterans adjust to life after the military. 

In Pittsburgh, researchers are creating advanced wheelchairs and other assistive technologies that can benefit both veterans with disabilities and the general public.

The Human Engineering Research Laboratories, or HERL for short, is a collaboration of the VA and the University of Pittsburgh, and is led by Rory Cooper, an engineer, professor, veteran and former paralympian. Under his direction, researchers at the labs have invented more than 100 devices and device components over the past 25 years.

These include a tool that helps wheelchair-bound people move to the toilet or to bed, and a robotic arm, which can recognize a specific object with a camera, grasp it and move it to the user.

Devices developed at HERL are often tested in a motion capture space, a cavernous room outfitted with 31 cameras. People test out inventions while covered in dots, the same way some animated movies are filmed.

"We want to see if there less strain on the body, those areas that commonly get injured," Cooper said. "And [does] it also reduce the overall motions, so is it more efficient."

While this lab is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Cooper said these inventions aren't geared only toward those returning from combat.

"The devices that we've helped to invent and the people that we've trained have gone all over the world," he said.

Last month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made Cooper the face of a trading card. He's one of 28 inventors recognized with their own card, including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Abraham Lincoln.

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