Solar-Powered Wheelchair Wins World Cerebral Palsy Day Competition

The team’s solar-powered wheelchair includes solar panels that are easily deployed and stored, providing nearly unlimited range at low speeds.

“This team of graduate and undergraduate students have created a device that will truly benefit those with disabilities”

A student team at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science won first place in the 2012 World Cerebral Palsy Day “Change My World in One Minute” competition for its design of a solar-powered wheelchair with retractable panels.

Seventeen million people worldwide live with cerebral palsy, a permanent disability that affects movement ranging from a weakness in one hand to an almost complete lack of voluntary movement.

World Cerebral Palsy Day was established in 2012 with an invitation for people with CP, their families and friends to post ideas online for something that could be created, developed or modified that would change the world for someone with a disability. Ideas were posted as text or video, with the specification that each idea could take only one minute to read or watch.

In early September, people were encouraged to go online, review the submitted ideas and vote for the concepts that could have the greatest impact on people’s lives – and more than 5,800 votes were cast for the 473 ideas submitted.

At the end of September, the World CP Day Panel reviewed the ideas and the public votes and selected three ideas to be shortlisted for development: a fold-up motorized wheelchair, a documentary on cerebral palsy in the 21st century and a wheelchair with solar power.

Social activists, researchers, inventors and innovators were then invited to turn the shortlisted ideas into reality.

“Our team worked closely together to come up with a solution for this challenging engineering problem in a very limited time,” said graduate student Dennis L. Waldron III, a member of the U.Va. team. “Although not required for the competition, we chose to build a prototype to test our design, and refined or completely changed certain aspects as we built, sometimes multiple times.”

The winners were announced April 27 at United Cerebral Palsy’s International Conference in San Diego, with U.Va.’s first-place entry receiving $20,000 from a total prize pool of $25,000.

The U.Va. team included electrical and computer engineering graduate students Waldron, Duncan McGillivray, Craig Ungaro and Ankit Shah, who work at the National Institute of Aerospace and NASA-Langley Research Center, and undergraduate mechanical and aerospace engineering students Maria Michael and Kyung Kim. Electrical and computer engineering professor Mool Gupta, the Langley Professor in Residence at U.Va. and at the National Institute of Aerospace in Hampton, advised the team.

The team built the device primarily at the National Institute of Aerospace’s Research and Innovation Laboratories Facility in Hampton. The project received support from the Engineering School’s Experiential Program, through funding from alumnus Linwood “Chip” Lacy, with Gupta providing additional financial support through his faculty funds and industry support.

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“This team of graduate and undergraduate students have created a device that will truly benefit those with disabilities,” Engineering School Dean James H. Aylor said. “The students on the team are excellent examples of the type of engineer we strive to produce in the U.Va. Engineering School – innovative leaders who are agents of change in society. I am thankful for the World CP Day organization for giving them this opportunity and for the National Institute of Aerospace for providing laboratory space.”

Team member Waldron, too, was thankful. “We are grateful for the opportunity to get our hands dirty and work on something with such great potential to help others,” He said. “That’s what engineering is all about.”

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