Solar power is becoming an increasingly popular source of energy, and researchers have found a way to use it to power such things as seafaring robots and wireless sensors. Now, a team of engineering students at the University of Virginia has found a use for it with a more altruistic angle -- to power a wheelchair that can be used for people with ailments such as cerebral palsy.
The solar-powered wheelchair designed by students in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science won first place and a prize of $20,000 in a contest called "Change My World in One Minute" held in conjunction with last year’s World Cerebral Palsy Day in September. The prize was announced in late April. The suggestion to build a solar-powered wheelchair came from Alper Sirvan, a Turkish resident who submitted the idea for the contest.
A student team at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science designed a solar-powered wheelchair that won first place in the 2012 World Cerebral Palsy Day "Change My World in One Minute" competition. The chair is powered by a retractable solar panels at the top that can work even in cloudy conditions and were inspired by the retractable roofs on convertible automobiles. (Source: University of Virginia)
Inspired by the retractable roofs on convertibles, students attached solar panels that can move in a similar way to the top of a wheelchair that is also powered by standard batteries. In addition to harvesting solar energy, the panels can provide shade on sunny days. The team did its best to ensure the addition of the panels did not take away from the mobility of the chair, UVA computer engineering graduate student and team member Dennis Waldron told Design News in an interview:
From our perspective, the most pressing requirement was to increase the mobility of the user. There are solar-power wheelchair designs that increase battery life, but they all increase the size of the chair, preventing its use indoors, on public transportation, etc. Our design incorporated retractable panels so that the user would have both extended range and the ability to take the chair where they please.
The team used a stock motorized chair to which they attached a frame and an assembly of panels with actuators that deploy and retract the panels with the flip of a switch. The frame was mainly 3/4-inch low-carbon machinable steel with 14-gauge (0.083 inch) wall thickness. The team also used some 1-inch aluminum T-slot bar and hand-fabricated brackets to construct it, Waldron said.
To operate the chair, a user only needs to be able to use a joystick, since a single switch controls the chair. Students also included a seatbelt, armrests, a footrest, and adjustable seating as comfort and safety options on the chair. Additionally, there are USB power outlets for the tech-savvy user that can charge items such as mobile phones, GPS navigation devices, table computers, or reading lights. The wheelchair can operate for more than 4 1/2 hours at a speed of 5 mph on a fully solar-charged battery. It can run indefinitely at a speed of 1 mph on solar power alone without use of the battery, Waldron told us.
He described how the battery-solar design of the wheelchair works in this way:
Our panels simply feed into a charge controller that charges the batteries. Electrically speaking, everything attaches to the same place -- the battery terminals -- so when the chair is running and receiving current from the panels, the motors draw from the panels and the batteries simultaneously. If the motors draw less current than the panels provide, the excess is fed to the batteries; conversely, if the motors draw more, the motors feed from the batteries and panels.
In addition to Waldron, the team -- advised by UVA and National Institute of Aerospace electrical and computer engineering professor Mool Gupta -- included electrical and computer engineering graduate students Duncan McGillivray, Craig Ungaro, and Ankit Shah, who work at the National Institute of Aerospace and NASA, Langley Research Center. Also on the team were undergraduate mechanical and aerospace engineering students Maria Michael and Kyung Kim. The students built the wheelchair primarily at the National Institute of Aerospace’s Research and Innovation Laboratories Facility in Hampton, Va. Support for the project came from the Engineering School’s Experiential Program through funding from an alumnus. Gupta also provided financial support.
The team intends to use its prize money to refine the chair to its final design and then ship it to Sirvan, the person who suggested it be built. Any remaining prize money will be returned to United Cerebral Palsy in support of future World Cerebral Palsy Day competitions, according to Waldron.
I like to cover these stories when they show inventive people coming up with creative uses of technology that can help people, too. Solar power is becoming more viable for many uses and this one is certainly interesting. It is a positive way to use a renewable energy and also adds a bit of a comfort benefit for the wheelchair user, providing shade from the sun from which its absorbing energy. I especailly like that the team is donating both the chair and the winnings for more altruistic causes.
What a great application for solar panels. Thanks for reporting on this, Elizabeth. And it's good to see progress made in using solar power for transportation, even though it's still combined with another energy source.
It is great to see such advancement taking place in the field of renewable energy. At first, I was doubting that how can the current produced from panels be sufficient for the wheel chair. The utilization of both the battery and solar panels cleared my doubt.
Although, the wheel chair running totally on solar panels, with 0 % battery is a bit hard to believe. There might be something more to it. Nonetheless, It is always great to hear about such news.
This "Change My World in One Minute" competition is exactly what I was suggesting. Although' I didn't catch who sponsored the competition. The Cerebral Palsy Foundation-? An unlikely Champion of the mentorship effort!
Yes, JimT, the contest was sponsored by a foundation for cerebral palsy--yes, it may seem unlikely but in some of the writing I've done I've found it is the people who have a medical need who actually are inspiring innovation these days. I wrote a story about an MIT program that paired doctors with students to come up with medical devices to solve real problems they encounter: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=259900
So it may seem unlikely but perhaps sometimes it's the best way to develop targeted technology that can be put to practical use.
Thanks, Elizabeth- you are being subtle saying sometimes it's the best way. Recall the old adage, 'Necessity is the Mother of Invention'. I think the best ideas always come from a direct need, or targeted challenge. Too many good designers are locked into company jobs, supporting corporate mandates to simply update a product line. That gets stale.
It's a great invention. The very idea of mobility combined with solar energy makes perfect sense. Although I'm concerned about how well this will play out in areas where the sun scarcely shines, still it'll be sure to help a long way. And think about it, it can serve as shelter for rain too, heh.
"The very idea of mobility combined with solar energy makes perfect sense. Although I'm concerned about how well this will play out in areas where the sun scarcely shines, still it'll be sure to help a long way. And think about it, it can serve as shelter for rain too"
Far911, in such cases you can think about hybrid energy sources. I mean along with solar, you can deploy either wind energy or rain harvesting mechanism , to turn the wheels.
"Alternative energy sources are a given. But a redundant source will only add to the cost and somehow negates the purpose of solar energy's autonomy, don't you think? "
Far911, am not able to follow exactly. I hope you meant about exploring the alternate energy sources. Solar energy won't be available throughout the year, so in such cases we have to explore the other sources like wind/ sea waves (tidal) etc.
I think that's why there are batteries as well, far911, so that should help augment when there is no solar energy. But even under cloud cover I think some solar panels can still absorv and use solar energy. And yes, the panels can also serve as an umbrella!
@Elizabeth M - True. Batteries are certainly serving as an alternative. However, the solar cell batteries should be sophisticated enough to provide long backup times in order to retain autonomy of this power source.
Thanks, MyDesign. I do find these stories some of the more interesting ones to cover as well. I've written about energy-harvesting soccer balls for underdeveloped nations and mobile app-driven prosthetic legs that help amputees get some of their normal lives back for Design News...this is the kind of stuff that shows some of the true promise of technology.
I agree with you that it's promising, MyDesign, but "only"? What about wind? Especially with all of the new inventions in harnessing wind offshore and in cities...I've written a couple of stories about the latter and also just covered the deployment of the first offshore wind turbine (but the story hasn't posted yet).
Check out these links and tell me what you think about the promise of wind? :)
"but "only"? What about wind? Especially with all of the new inventions in harnessing wind offshore and in cities...I've written a couple of stories about the latter and also just covered the deployment of the first offshore wind turbine (but the story hasn't posted yet)."
Elizebeth, "only" means only natural/renewable resources. It includes wind, solar, Hydro electric projects etc.
Oops, sorry! I misunderstood your comment, MyDesign. Of course you're right! Renewables are the way to go. I actually myself am fascinated by the potential of ocean waves and power and can't wait to see someone start harnessing that. (I'm a surfer...so this is a natural interest of mine!) Forgive me for my confusion...
"I actually myself am fascinated by the potential of ocean waves and power and can't wait to see someone start harnessing that"
Elizabeth, actually in my place they had started a power generation unit from tidal waves, but later they found that it's not economical due to various reasons and winded up. Still the reason is unknown to public.
"Really? Interesting. I actually wrote about a company that said it can do something like that and are working on technology. http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=262437 I have no idea how they are going to use this fabric to harness ocean waves but I guess we'll see!"
Elizabeth, thanks for the link. Hope you will update with the latest details soon.
I will keep track, MyDesign, and write updates as warranted. Actually I was just visiting friends north of Porto here in Portugal, where I live, and my friend's father told me there is a project off the coast of Portugal doing something with waves. Whether it's true or not, I don't know, but I am going to look into it.
Ahan Elizebeth that really great it feels very good watching young engineers inventing such technologies .Solar power wheel chair is simply very creative idea it helps give patients mobility but i have one question ? Are these wheel chairs folding if yes then it is very easy to use them during travelling if no it will be very difficult for user to buy another one for the purpose of travelling .
A photo of the retracted panels would be good. As viewed it looks like an erector set project.(As an Erector Set past user this is not detrimental ccmment.) That would all be aceptable if the panels and frame colapse into the foot print of a wheel chair as a retractable car roof does. Good application of Solar. My opinion this would be a good starting point for the size of an electric car. Add only what is necessary from there to achieve distance, weather protection, speed, etc. Imagine a auditorium parking lot with hundreds of wheel chair sized vehicles.
Good question, Debera, I have to admit I'm not sure about the chairs of the wheelchair. If a typical wheelchair's wheels fold I would tend to say yes, and I believe they tried to model it on a typical chair...but I am not positive on that. I would have to check.
"Solar power is becoming an increasingly popular source of energy, and researchers have found a way to use it to power"
Elizebath, now a day's more R&D at technology and application levels are happening with respect to solar energy. I think we can replace almost all powering sources at application level by solar energy by equipping a PV panel and a storage device along with necessary commuting circuits.
This is an exercise in material science, not electrical engineering. Using solar power to keep batteries charged in a mobile device is hardly news. But for this device to be practical it has to out in the sun (and rain, sometimes) to ensure a constant charging supply, and it has to not fall to pieces on the 1st of September after the raindrops have trickled through the non-stainless steel screws and the sunshine has baked the non-UV resistant plastics.
Weatherproofing the device is the bigger challenge.
I'd define it as this chair has to be whereever the operator is and wants to be. It has to navigate like a normal chair but with the advantage that when out and about it is self sufficantly powering itself, increasing the range, speed, and thus the self sufficancy of the operator.
Excellent points, Battar. I think you'd be right about the weatherproofing. Maybe in a future design this problem could be tackled. I think maybe because the user is in Turkey, rain wouldn't be such a big issue? Seems to be a lot more sun than rain in that country...but I'm sure it's still a concern.
Excellent post Elizabeth. I have a dear friend (fellow engineer) with Parkinson's disease. He is confined to a wheelchair and loves to go outside to sit in the sun. Most of his day is involved with "motoring" to the mail box and back. The application of solar power to his chair would be a great addition to that device. He definitely will get your article. I love the retractable panel idea. I think the students have hit on a great idea. Thanks again for posting.
Thanks for sharing that personal story, bobjengr. It's always good to hear how the technology can affect someone in a real-life situation. For someone like your friend this would be perfect--it seems like he does not need a lot of battery power and is in the sun most of the time anyway, so the chair could always use its solar setting. Hopefully this will go from a student project to a commercial design at some point.
It seems that many student design teams are studying alternative energy projects. I suppose this is because of their popularity and appeal among younger people, and also the opportunity to learn about more complex systems with many parts. Excellent educational opportunity.
"It seems that many student design teams are studying alternative energy projects. I suppose this is because of their popularity and appeal among younger people, and also the opportunity to learn about more complex systems with many parts. Excellent educational opportunity."
Apresher, I think now a day's most of the educational systems are adaptive to nature and students are keen in explore further to it. Solar energy is the only promising energy source for the future and hence developments are happening for extracting more energy at verity of application levels.
Are they robots or androids? We're not exactly sure. Each talking, gesturing Geminoid looks exactly like a real individual, starting with their creator, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University in Japan.
Truchard will be presented the award at the 2014 Golden Mousetrap Awards ceremony during the co-located events Pacific Design & Manufacturing, MD&M West, WestPack, PLASTEC West, Electronics West, ATX West, and AeroCon.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This discussion will examine what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.