Lindsay Waters of Springfield, Mo., was one of 13 college students from the United States and Puerto Rico to work on advanced science and engineering projects this summer at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Working with two other students, Waters helped to design and build a wheelchair capable of autonomously traversing stairs.
“Many buildings contain special facilities for the disabled,” says Waters, a senior in computer engineering at UMR. “But some older buildings, homes and outdoor areas may not have those facilities. Elevators could also be out of service. There are times when an individual in a wheelchair may need to traverse stairs.”
The idea for the wheelchair project originated with Dr. Scott Smith, an assistant professor of computer engineering at UMR. Smith was one of the advisors during the summer session of Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a program funded by the National Science Foundation. Several projects that might prove to be helpful to the public were completed by teams of students during the eight-week REU program at UMR.
“One team worked on a fishing pole that could be operated by a quadriplegic person,” Smith says. “We tried to focus on engineering projects that might help out the less fortunate.”
Waters’ team built the wheelchair on a budget of about $2,000. The wheelchair is equipped with proximity sensors that can detect stairs. It weighs about 150 pounds, is powered by a deep cycle wheelchair battery, has a tread system for traction and has a self-leveling seat. Best of all, it works.
“A mechanical system allows the wheelchair to safely climb and descend stairs without tipping over,” Waters says.
The most difficult part of the project, according to Waters, was interfacing the mechanical and electrical systems.
Smith concedes that the wheelchair would need some work before it could be marketed, but he’s proud of what Waters and the other students were able to achieve with limited time and resources.
“There’s currently a wheelchair that does this on the market,” Smith says, “but it sells for about $29,000.”
Students are selected for the REU program based primarily on academic credentials, according to Smith.