PITTSBURGH — Years ago in Germany, Rory Cooper learned from the director of a production, engineering and automation institute about motors powered by compressed air. It got him thinking.

Most wheelchairs are heavy, run on batteries with lots of electronics involved. They do work well — but only if they stay dry.

“It dawned on me that the real demand would be for use at pools, beaches and water parks,” said Cooper, director of the University of Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Laboratories. “Wheelchairs don’t work in wet conditions, with their batteries and electronics.”

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After about three years of design and development, HERL’s PneuChair wheelchair, fully waterproof and powered by a compressed-air-powered motor, made its debut this month at Morgan’s Wonderland, a 25-acre theme park in San Antonio.

The park, built to be fully accessible to all people with disabilities, now has 10 PneuChairs for use at its Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a $16 million splash park scheduled to open this spring.

Early in the wheelchair project, park officials actually contacted Cooper, who holds a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering, about creating a waterproof wheelchair. Gordon Hartman is founder of the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, which developed and now operates the park, through its nonprofit organization, Sports Outdoor And Recreation. SOAR has partnered with HERL to get the PneuChair into mass production and distributed through a licensing agreement. Cooper said he hopes production can begin before the end of the year.

Hartman, who first saw the chair last week, said he likes its look and how it operates. It also weighs only 80 pounds — about one-third the weight of an electric wheelchair.

“I knew it was special. They designed it and put it together better than I thought when we first got into this,” he said. “What it will do for us is make our ultra-accessible park truly ultra-accessible. What this wheelchair can do in a wet environment is incredible, plus it assures that everyone can use the park regardless of what their special needs may be.”

PneuChair’s name reflects the use of pneumatic power. It works with a piston engine powered by air pressure that allows the chair to reach a top speed of 5 mph but currently set to travel at 3 mph. It can go up a fairly steep 10-degree slope (about a 1 foot rise for every 5 to 6 feet in distance), and travel three miles before needing to be recharged with an air compressor. While it can take up to eight hours to recharge a wheelchair battery, the PneuChair can be recharged in just minutes.

In its carbon-fiber tanks, similar to scuba tanks, air is compressed to 4,500 pounds per square inch, said Ben Gebrosky, HERL’s testing engineer. There’s a slight hissing noise when it’s operating. Air coming from the motor is breathable, Gebrosky said.

Although it is not commercially available, PneuChair’s durability, lightweight and quick recharge all serve to make it ideal for airports, nursing homes, parks, malls, grocery and retail stores, with a role perhaps as a primary wheelchair for some people, said Cooper, who has used a wheelchair since 1980, when a truck struck him while he was riding a bicycle in Germany.

Demand is large with about 4 million people using wheelchairs in the United States. Cooper described the wheelchair’s potential as “transformative.”

“I think this will change the world for a lot of people,” he said.

© 2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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