Students develop devices to make life easier for aging Americans

Feb 23, 2012
Albert transfers from his wheelchair to the mechanics creeper.
Albert LaBounty, who helped the students tweak their design, transfers from his wheelchair to the mechanics creeper. Also pictured is L J Wilde, one of the students who created the device.

Students showcased two devices to help America’s aging population at the Assistive Technology Lab at Utah State University on February 22. The event coincided with Engineering Week at USU.

An earlier version of one of the devices, a wheelchair lift that helps a caretaker lift and stow a wheelchair into the trunk of a car, has a patent pending. The other device, the mechanics creeper, was developed to allow people to work under a car—even if they cannot use their legs.

Dr. Steve Hansen, a former deputy director of the Space Dynamics Lab and a research professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, mentored the students who worked on the projects. He sees some broad applications for both of them. The creeper could come in handy for just about any shop with a senior mechanic who would like to minimize the stress on his knees. The wheelchair lift would make life easier for a caretaker who can assist a person in a wheelchair, but who struggles with wrangling a 50-pound wheelchair in and out of the trunk.

Both projects used the facilities of the Assistive Technology Lab and drew from the expertise of its staff.

James Somers demonstrates a lift that mechanically raises and stows a wheelchair in the trunk of a car
James Somers demonstrates a lift that mechanically raises and stows a wheelchair in the trunk of a car.

The wheelchair lift is an option that would help senior couples, said Amy Henningsen, an occupational therapist for the Utah Assistive Technology Program. Too often, if one of them is in a wheelchair, they end up staying home because dealing with the wheelchair is too inconvenient.

Albert LaBounty was the inspiration for the mechanics creeper. He lost the use of his legs 20 years ago, but he didn’t lose his passion for working on cars. He worked with the engineering students who designed the creeper, letting them know what would and would not work. “I asked them to make sure it’s low enough that I can get under the vehicle without jacking it up,” he said.

 With the creeper he looks forward to changing his own oil—which will save him $30 every time he can avoid paying a mechanic to do it for him. It sits at a height that allows him to transfer over from his wheelchair. Then it lowers and reclines until he can slide under a pickup.

L J Wilde worked with a team of students to build the creeper. The project also helped them build their resumes. Then L J saw Albert use their creation for the first time. “It was an experience second to none in my academic career,” he said.

Both projects continue to evolve, as their designers think up new ways to improve them. They were supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which awarded Dr. Hansen a five-year, $125,000 Engineering Design to Assist Aging Persons grant. Over the next four years the grant will continue to help students find ways to make life easier for aging Americans. (If you have an idea for a project, go to the Utah Assistive Technology Program’s blog and leave them a comment.)

Additional support for the projects came from the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at Utah State University and the Center for Persons with Disabilities’ Assistive Technology Lab.

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