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This Pitt-developed wheelchair can roll in the water

| Monday, May 1, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

A new wheelchair developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh takes people where other powered wheelchairs fear to tread: the water.

Rory Cooper and his team at Pitt's Human Engineering Research Laboratories have developed an air-powered wheelchair and scooter.

“There's no electronics at all,” Cooper said. “It's completely submersible.”

That means veterans could wade into the water to go fishing or kids could roll right into the shallow end at the Dormont pool, Cooper said.

And at Morgan's Wonderland , a theme park in San Antonio, Texas, designed specially for people with disabilities, guests can escape the 100-plus-degree summer heat in its new waterpark opening in June.

“There's water coming at you from every which angle,” said Ron Rander, general manager of Morgan's Wonderland, which hopes to open its waterpark in June. “That's why we need the pneumatic chair.”

Cooper, the director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories , a collaboration between Pitt, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and UPMC, said he and his team have worked on the air-powered chair, the PneuChair, for about three years. Cooper wanted to design a powered wheelchair without the batteries. The PneuChair's other benefits over traditional battery-operated chairs — it can get wet; it's lighter; it recharges faster; it's easier to maintain — were bonuses.

About 1.7 million people use a wheelchair or scooter, according to the University of California Disability Statistics Center . Both Rander and Cooper said early interest in a non-electric, air-powered model has been high.

“I've been amazed at the response we've gotten. People, they just want their kids to be able to run through sprinklers,” Cooper said. “Veterans who say they just want to be able to wade in the water to go trout fishing.”

Two air tanks similar to what firemen carry power rotary-piston motors that turn the wheels of the chair. Cooper and his team also use air to power the steering.

The PneuChair and scooter can run for about three miles on a single charge while standard battery-powered models have a range of three to nine miles on a single charge. Recharging the tanks on a PneuChair, however, takes only five minutes. Battery-operated chairs can take about eight hours. The PneuChair weighs about 120 pounds, much lighter than battery operated chairs that weigh about 400 pounds.

Cooper said the PneuChair and scooter cost about the same as comparable electric models, based on early estimates. The PneuChair will cost about $6,000 and the scooter between $2,000 and $3,000. Over the long run, however, maintenance on the air-powered chairs and scooters will be much less than battery-powered versions, Cooper said.

Sports Outdoors and Recreation, a nonprofit established by The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation in San Antonio, bought the chair and scooter designs from Pitt and the VA, Rander said. The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation runs Morgan's Wonderland, named for Gordon Hartman's daughter, Morgan, who suffers from a cognitive delay.

Pride Mobility Corp., a maker of electric wheelchairs and scooters in West Pittston in Luzerne County, will manufacture the chairs and scooters, Cooper said. The first 10 chairs will go to Morgan's Wonderland.

“I'm ecstatic,” Rander said. “I've been wanting to have a waterpark for a long time. I think the pneumatic chair will be so impactful.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Benjamin Gebrosky, Testing Engineer at Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (left) Director Rory Cooper after a demonstration of their air-powered wheelchair at Baker Square, Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Rory Cooper, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories, shows the air-powered wheelchair developed by his team.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Benjamin Gebrosky, Testing Engineer at Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories helps set up the air-powered wheelchair with Rory Cooper at their Baker Square site, Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
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