Brennecke and students demonstrate the automated wheelchair to Rich Harley

Engineering Independence

Engineering students and faculty work to design an affordable alternative to remote-controlled wheelchairs.

By: Therese Boyd

The ideal engineer is a composite ... He is not a scientist, he is not a mathematician, he is not a sociologist or a writer; but he may use the knowledge and techniques of any or all of these disciplines in solving engineering problems.
—Nathan W. Dougherty, American civil engineer

It was an engineering problem, for sure, but it was also a personal problem. For 60+ years Rich Harley had used crutches to get around because of childhood polio. When his doctor informed him in 1999 to no longer use crutches and that he needed to switch to a wheelchair because his shoulders were worn out, it meant a wheelchair-accessible van. It also meant that Harley’s wife, Sue, was going to have to accompany her husband everywhere he went because even though he could transfer in and out of the van well enough, the wheelchair still had to be brought to him or taken from him and moved to the ramp-lift in the back of the van to be loaded.

While presently remote-control devices exist, they are prohibitively expensive, Harley says, “$33,000 and up.” What was needed was an affordable remote-control device that met the standards Harley, himself a retired civil engineer, set. Enter the engineers. Craig Brennecke, professor of practice in engineering, had a group of Penn State Altoona seniors who needed to select their capstone projects. Harley says the remote-control idea came from Brennecke, who asked him, “What would you say if you had the opportunity to sit in the driver’s seat in your van and you drive your wheelchair from the back to the driver’s seat?” Harley was immediately on board and already thinking ahead. He responded, “Do you realize the impact this could have for veterans and the disabled?”

Taylor Leach, Sue Harley, Jason Dolansky, Rich Harley, Chad Miller, Stan Pinchuk, and Brad Vitt

The Independence team: (L-R) Taylor Leach, Sue Harley, Jason Dolansky, Rich Harley, Chad Miller, Stan Pinchuk, and Brad Vitt

Image: Penn State

Harley’s wheelchair problem turned out to be popular among the capstone project suggestions Brennecke had for the students to consider. “I sent out prospective projects to all the EMET 403 students and over half of the class volunteered to work on this project,” he says. In the end, the team consisted of Jason Dolansky, Taylor Leach, Chad Miller, Stan Pinchuk, and Brad Vitt.

First things first: they needed a chair. “Our plan was to purchase one,” Dolansky says. “We found a company located in Pennsylvania—Golden Technologies. We asked if they’d be willing to donate a chair or give us a discount. They gave us a chair, an extra control stick, and a second drive module for testing the extra stuff.” The extra control stick was necessary because “what we ended up doing was taking the control stick apart and finding the signals that the control stick sent to the control board.”

Once they found the signals, they had to “get the controller to communicate with the control box,” says Leach. “The controller wouldn’t accept them so we had to build a separate circuit board. After three weeks I was getting communication but it took a month to get it to do it reliably.”

They also had to make sure that once the wheelchair was in the van, it would be secured so that it didn’t move around during travel. For that, Dolansky says, they used a “car-trunk latch as a locking mechanism. We’re using the wiring for that and we put an LED at the top so when the latch is open the LED is lit.”

The final product was dubbed “Independence” by the team because that’s exactly what it gave both Rich and Sue Harley. Although he is retired, he is quite active as a photographer and ham radio emergency communications volunteer. And now his wife doesn’t have to be present every time he pursues his hobbies.

The students entered the Independence in the Pechter Business Plan Competition during Penn State Altoona’s 2019 Spring Showcase, where they had to present their project and answer questions from the judges, such as

Q: “What’s the frequency band?”

A: “2.4 GHz so that it won’t interfere with cellphones or radios.”

Q: “Did you consider sensors?”

A: “We talked about doing sensors but we were having trouble with the stop.”

Q: “What’s the weight?”

A: “A couple of pounds for the electric components.”

Q: “Have you looked into tying the cameras into the backup screens of a standard van?”

A: “We wanted to make it so he could use it in any vehicle, so the control is portable.”

And that last answer brings up a very important point. The students’ vision for this project goes far beyond a mere wheelchair-and-car combination. “We didn’t want to limit the use of their device to a car,” Dolansky said, “Someone could use this in their home.”

The Independence team won second place in the Pechter Business Plan competition and since there was no third-place competitor, the judges agreed to award the Independence team both the second and third place money so that they could continue to pursue the very worthwhile project.

Harley cannot say enough good things about his work with the students: “My association with these guys has been really terrific. They know what to do. They’ve got this thing together.” And he is still thinking about the larger picture. “There are some things out there that are similar but the cost is astronomical. And you have to modify a van. This is a matter of putting this on almost any chair for anyone at a price that is affordable.” He says he told the students, “If you can keep this thing around $4,000–$5,000 ... and they said it would be much lower. We feel confident this is going to be extremely valuable to a lot of people.”