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Unique Mobility Products from University of Utah Program Enhance Lives of the Physically Disabled

The Ergonomics and Safety Program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah developed a paraglider than can be used by parapalegics.

October 26, 2011— For those who do not have the use of their legs or arms, the feeling of flying through the air can be a liberating experience, to say the least. Now, the Ergonomics and Safety Program at the University of Utah has partnered with the organization Able Pilot to provide disabled persons with just such a feeling of mobility. The partnership has produced the Phoenix, a paraglider that enables paraplegics to take flight by piloting their own craft with minimal assistance. The first flight lifted-off this summer.

The university partnered with Able Pilot because of its already established research and instructional program, designed to establish and support the development and testing of formal paragliding, hang gliding and ultra-light instructional protocol and methods for pilots with various physical disabilities.

Powered by a prominent faculty member and technically savvy students specializing in practical innovation, the Ergonomics and Safety Program in Utah’s Department of Mechanical Engineering continues to cement its status as one of the world’s most unique centers for empowering disabled and injured people of all ages.

“This program is an absolute bulls-eye for our dual mission of creating technologies that improve the quality of human life and support successful commercialization efforts for the University and our partners,” said James Taylor, business and technology development manager at the Technology Commercialization Office (TCO) at the University of Utah. “The brilliant, results-focused students and faculty that are attracted to the Ergonomics and Safety Program are playing a crucial, productive role in building Utah and its flagship research university into a global center for innovation and business, while greatly impacting the performance and opportunities for disabled people everywhere.”

As part of the Office of Technology Venture Development (Tech Ventures), TCO works with Dr. Don Bloswick, professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department and Director of the Ergonomics and Safety Program, to patent and license the intellectual property that his lab generates. In addition to their efforts in the design and development of rehabilitation and assist devices, the ingenuity of students and faculty in the program is also targeted toward working on innovations for the workplace. One example is a series of exoskeletons for people suffering from back injuries. Some are designed to aid in lifting and therefore enabling a faster return to work. Students have also developed a wide and ingenious array of wheelchairs that employ new propulsion systems, while yet other are designs to function seamlessly on snow and sand. Other compelling projects in the pipeline include a set of innovative wheelchairs:

  • A foot-propelled track-ball wheelchair that uses a forward sliding motion of the user’s foot to power the motion of the chair
  • A lift-seat wheelchair for seniors that assists them in standing through operation of a spring-lifted seat
  • A hand-cranked wheelchair carriage that allows the user to sit atop the wheelchair and uses tracks to negotiate soft terrains such as sand or snow
  • An arm-lever propelled wheelchair that results in less fatigue and better braking

The program’s legacy of innovation began with a single request. In the summer of 1990, Don Bloswick and Don Brown, professors in the University of Utah’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, received a call from Judy Gooch, a physician at Primary Children’s Hospital expressing a need for an exercise system for children with cerebral palsy. Systems in use at the time failed to engage the sustained focus of the children.

In collaboration with several graduate students in the Ergonomics and Safety program, Bloswick and Brown envisioned a device that would enable the kids to strengthen their gluteal muscles and have fun at the same time. The result was a tricycle riding system that allowed the children to propel themselves on the trike, while simulating a walking movement with their legs. The TheraTrike Therapeutic Tricycle is still available commercially.

“We knew we had achieved our goal when we saw how enthusiastically the trike was embraced by the children” said Bloswick. “The parents appreciated the trike because it improved the children’s gait, but what struck the deepest chord with everyone was that the trike enabled the children to play and socialize in new and meaningful ways. Soon we received multiple calls every day from parents who wanted to know if they could obtain a trike, which let us know we had created something that combined strong commercial value with enormous human benefit.”

The Ergonomics and Safety group is one of many programs at the University of Utah that work with Tech Ventures, which has helped establish Utah’s flagship institution of higher learning as the nation’s leader in producing startups from university-generated technology. Tech Ventures has a three-fold mission: to help create enterprises that are technology leaders in their markets and provide quality jobs for Utah citizens; support technology development for existing Utah businesses and enterprises; and generate returns on the University’s technologies for investment in new research, to support and retain current faculty, and to hire additional world-class scientists.

About The Ergonomics and Safety Program

The Ergonomics and Safety Program — currently staffed by three full-time faculty members, four master’s students and ten Ph.D. students. The academic component of the program is primarily in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. It is also a core program within the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (RMCOEH), a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Education and Research Center (NIOSH ERC) located in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine.