UI student's wheelchair features rolling, with changes

UI student's wheelchair features rolling, with changes

URBANA – If gear shifting is good for motorists and bicyclists, why not for wheelchair users?

That's what Scott Daigle wondered as he watched people propel themselves around the University of Illinois campus in wheelchairs.

"They were going about as fast as they could. Their arms were the only things limiting them," said Daigle, a first-year graduate student in mechanical engineering.

Adding gear shifting to the wheelchair could help them get around more efficiently, he figured. So he set about designing improvements and came up with a continuous variable transmission.

There are already wheelchairs with gears, but Daigle's concept is distinct.

"The way mine is different is, it automatically senses your conditions, so if you're going quickly, it will shift to a higher gear, or if you're going up a hill, it will shift to a lower gear. The user doesn't even think about it," he said.

Daigle, 22, of Westmont came up with the idea in January, when he was a senior. He worked on the project last spring in a technology entrepreneurship class taught by Brian Lilly, and developed the first prototype last summer.

In refining his innovation, Daigle has to consider weight, cost and adaptability to existing wheelchairs.

"Being lightweight is the biggest challenge. If you do it wrong, it can get too heavy," he said. "You also want to create something that could be used on anyone's chair."

Daigle said he worked with his co-advisers in the graduate program – Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler, a mechanical engineer- ing professor, and Jacob Sosnoff, a kinesiology professor – to apply for grants for the project.

He has applied to both the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the National Institutes of Health – the latter for a Small Business Technology Transfer grant.

Sosnoff said Daigle's innovation could spell relief for wheelchair users.

"There are about 1.5 million wheelchair users in the U.S., and upward of 70 percent of them develop shoulder pain," Sosnoff said.

Unlike people who don't use wheelchairs, they can't do much to rest their shoulders, he said.

Daigle's innovation "reduces the amount of force that a wheelchair user has to use to push the wheelchair," Sosnoff said. "It minimizes the forces transmitted up to the shoulder."

There are similar designs on the market, but most require the user to do the shifting. Daigle's design "shifts for you," Sosnoff said. "You don't have to shift. It magically does it itself."

The innovation could be particularly welcome for wheelchair users with cognitive impairment, such as stroke patients, those with dementia and children who might not understand how to shift, Sosnoff said.

"No cognitive requirement in shifting is the great aspect of this project," he said.

Lilly, an adjunct associate professor, said there's more design and engineering to be done. But he likes the idea of wheelchairs with continuous variable transmission.

The device senses the ground slope and speed and is intelligent enough to know what gear it should be in, he added.

Lilly said Daigle "really has a drive to problem-solve. I don't think that when he started to do it, he was even thinking of doing it as a money-making venture."

But Lilly insists his students approach their projects that way.

"If they can't make money off it, they don't have a strong value proposition," he said.

Daigle said his goal is to polish the product and turn it into something helpful.

"My dream is to start my own company and be able to bring products of my own invention to the world," he said. "It's way too early to tell if it's really possible."

But he has believers – among them Sosnoff, who calls Daigle "the lab MacGyver."

"When I come up with problems, he comes back the next day with a parts list," he said. "He builds things for me all the time. He's revolutionized my lab. He's a very driven and motivated young man."