May 11, 2017

Rory Cooper: The Man Behind the Technology

Rory Cooper couldn’t have known what to expect as he and his team from the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh prepared to test their state-of-the-art power chair at October’s inaugural Cybathlon in Kloten, Switzerland.
The Cybathlon was conceived as a chance for the world’s leading assistive technology researchers to show off their latest and greatest innovations in several different events: a virtual race using brain control interface, a bicycle race using FES, obstacle courses for people with arm and leg prostheses, an obstacle course for robotic exoskeletons, and the event Cooper was competing in, an extreme obstacle course for power wheelchairs.
That might sound like fun to someone like Cooper, HERL’s founder and director and one of the preeminent researchers and engineers when it comes to assistive technology, but no one knew if people would fill up the hockey arena where the competition was being held — or if the general public even cared.
Photo courtesy of University of Pittsburgh
When Cooper strapped on his helmet and rolled into the arena, the response caught him off guard. “The size of the turnout was amazing,” he recalls. Not only was the arena mostly filled with raucous fans, but a large media contingent was on hand to broadcast the event live across Europe and the internet. “I’ve competed in a lot of athletic competitions — I was a Paralympian in 1988 and I’ve been a coach a number of times — but rolling out there, it felt almost like I was a gladiator.”
In many ways, Cooper is a gladiator for those who rely on assistive technology. Ever since he was paralyzed in 1980, Cooper has devoted himself to pushing assistive technology forward by inventing and improving the products people with disabilities rely on and fighting to raise the public’s awareness of their needs. If you use a wheelchair or any other sort of assistive technology, the chances are extremely high that he has had some direct or indirect influence on its design.
With a list of awards, accomplishments and honors almost as long as the list of patents he has secured, Cooper didn’t need the adulation of the Cybathlon crowd, but its significance was not lost on him. “Hopefully the enthusiasm that was there will drive more people to study science and engineering and help continue the progress that we’ve made,” he says. “If I want anything, I want to grow the positive impact that we can have on people with disabilities.”

Building the Wheelchair Capital

Cooper’s quest to elevate assistive technology began July 23, 1980, when he was paralyzed in a biking accident while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. He eventually made it home to California where he completed his rehab and married the German woman he had fallen in love with. As he studied electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, he grew increasingly aware of the obstacles facing people with disabilities and his knack for solving them. He was particularly interested in the repetitive stress injuries many people suffered from pushing wheelchairs. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and got a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. He completed a fellowship in rehabilitation engineering and science and then taught at California State University in Sacramento. In 1990 he was appointed director of the school’s Human Engineering Laboratory and coordinator of the Rehabilitation Engineering Program. The University of Pittsburgh hired him away in 1994 and soon after he founded HERL.
“It started in my living room and dining room at home with me and two graduate students. My wife kicked us out and the VA gave us an old locker room,” he says. “Literally one of my students got an award last week, and he mentioned that there was a sign over his desk that said  ‘Please flush after using.’ I reminded him that my office was the towel cage.”
Even Cooper has trouble reconciling those humble beginnings with the program’s current setup. Six years ago HERL moved into a custom-built space in a swanky Pittsburgh research park alongside Google, Ford and other industry giants. The space is big enough to accommodate the 70 to 100 students, faculty and interns that regularly pass through, and it holds all the design and manufacturing equipment for researchers to see their projects through from inception to completion.
Rory Cooper pilots the MEBot in the 2016 Cybathlon.
Rory Cooper pilots the MEBot in the 2016 Cybathlon. Photo courtesy of HERL.

“It is kind of unique in that everything’s housed at one place,” says Jonathan Duvall, a C6 quad completing his Ph.D. at HERL. “You can design something using 3-D CAD software and as soon as you’re done designing it, you go down to the basement to the machine shop and actually build it yourself. We don’t outsource any of our production. We have all the machines there to do it ourselves. So we go from concept and idea to prototyping to testing in the field — and even doing human subject testing to see how people feel about the technology that we develop and how effective it is.”
That unique setup, combined with a dedicated team of researchers and medical professionals, has helped make HERL into the “wheelchair capital” for researchers, according to Jonathan Pearlman, the associate director for product innovation and translation. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shop like we have,” he says. “Even our engineering schools here at Pitt — their jaws just drop when they see the resources we have. … Our setup helps create the kinds of synergies that happen less frequently elsewhere.”
The 70 or so projects going on at any one time run the gamut. Beyond wheelchairs and orthoses, you might catch a glimpse of robots preparing meals, researchers testing home environmental control units or something else you’ve never seen before.
“You really never know what’s going to be talked about the next day,” says Brandon Daveler, a C4-5 quad who completed his master’s at HERL and is now working on his Ph.D.
Brandon Daveler and Jonathan Duvall are both grad students at HERL
Brandon Daveler and Jonathan Duvall are both grad students at HERL. Photo by Lawrence Roffee Photography.

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