Researchers Exploring New Markets for Water-friendly Wheelchair After Rewarding Debut

young man in a white shirt using a blue and black PneuChairA successful summer season has wrapped up at Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park in San Antonio, Texas. And Pitt-based technology played a big part.

Inspiration Island was the first location to use the PneuChair pneumatic wheelchairs created by the University of Pittsburgh. The devices use high-pressured air as an energy source instead of heavy batteries and electronics, making them ideal for a water park, where traditional power chairs could malfunction through contact with moisture.

The patent-pending chairs were designed and developed at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), a joint effort of Pitt, UPMC and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

HERL Director Rory Cooper said that the laboratories are still conducting research and development for additional markets for the chairs. But the attention from the chair’s use at the Texas water park has spurred interest from long-term care facilities, for example, because the reduced weight of the chair makes it easier to transport, he said. Each chair weighs about 120 pounds overall — compared to up to 250 for an average power wheelchair — and takes just 10 minutes to recharge. Cooper also received feedback that people would like to use the chairs to drive into therapy pools, wave pools, beaches and even into lakes and streams for fishing.

“There have been thousands of inquiries on social media,” he said. “I’ve received emails and so have the people at the park.”

Cooper in a gray suitAt Inspiration Island, children and adults with disabilities were able to enjoy cool water under a spouting octopus and revel under curtains of rain using the chairs.

“These waterproof chairs have given our guests a passport to fun that they never thought possible,” said Bob McCullough, park communications director. “To hear their stories and to hear about the positive impact this has had on them is both gratifying and humbling.”

McCullough said the success at Morgan’s Inspiration Island means the park plans to have more chairs manufactured in the coming months to add to the fleet.

For the summer 2017 season, HERL provided one chair and the park contracted with Stealth, a Burnet, Texas-based division of Quantum Rehab, to build three more. The park welcomed 31,000 guests since opening its doors June 17.

“It made me feel excited for the children and their families,” Cooper said. “Our goal is to help people as much as we can through creating and implementing new technologies.”