College Student Improves Wheelchair Design

"You don't have to think about it to use it," Scott Daigle says

By Susan Ball
|  Friday, Dec 4, 2009  |  Updated 7:45 PM CDT
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U of I Grad Student Designs New Wheelchair

Scott Daigle

From Left: Dr. Brian P. Lilly, Scott C. Daigle, Dr. Jacob J. Sosnoff and Dr. Elizabeth T. Hsiao-Wecksler

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A grad student from the University of Illinois is working on a prototype for the first continuous transmission wheelchair.

Scott Daigle, a first-year grad student in mechanical engineering, said he came up with the idea in January for a technology entrepreneurship class.
 
"I was observing the way people were getting around on campus," the 22-year-old Daigle said. "I never actually talked to anybody about it to come up with the idea," he explained. "I just decided to go for it."
 
His design, still in its infancy, incorporates a continuous variable transmission, which reduces shoulder pain in manual wheelchair users.  It also greatly improves the century-old original design as well as modern-day models such as "Magic Wheels" that incorporate two-gear manual wheels.
 
"On a bike you have a specific number of gears," Daigle explained. "With a continuous variable transmission you have an infinite number of gears. It allows the transmission to shift very smoothly and unnoticeable," he said.
 
"You feel your own car kind of shift-shock. With a CVT, you never feel that," Daigle said. "It’s just a smooth transition and it happens without you even thinking about it or noticing it."
 
The mechanical engineering student presented his project during the Spring semester to his fellow GE 461 students and professor Brian Lilly.
 
"From the classmates we got a lot of different feedback – some more helpful than others," Daigle said.
 
One concern, he said, was about the overall weight of his design.
 
"The ability to be lightweight is important," Daigle said. "It’s one of the obstacles we’re facing, but we think we can overcome it."
 
Daigle added that he’s currently working on making his design more polished and user-friendly. He said he didn’t have a certain group of wheelchair users in mind when he came up with the concept, he just didn’t want too much of a learning curve.
 
"I was thinking of it as something that could be used by everyday wheelchair users without a specific demographic in mind," Daigle said. "It should be beneficial to all groups."
 
Daigle credits the kinesiology department’s wheelchair research group and the Technology Entrepreneur Center with helping him come up with new designs and pushing him forward.
 
"They’re helping me pursue grant applications to continue the development of the product," Daigle said.
 
He said the TEC provided him with the funds for the first prototype that he constructed this summer. He added that he has applied to the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovator Alliance and is looking into Small Business Research Funding opportunities from the National Institute of Health.
 
With the assistance of professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler, mechanical engineering, and assistant professor Jacob Sosnoff, kinesiology, he says his goal is to take his project and turn it into a business in the future.
 
"You want to be able to help people with the product that you make," he said.  "In order to do that it oftentimes has to be a successful business."
 
And in response to Sosnoff's reference to the budding entrepreneur as a "lab MacGyver," Daigle said he was amused.
 
"That made me feel pretty good," he admitted.

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