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Langley, NIA Students Design Award-Winning Wheelchair
When Dennis Waldron, Duncan McGillivray, Craig Ungaro and Ankit Shah entered a World Cerebral Palsy Day competition to design a solar-powered wheelchair, they honestly didn't think they had a shot at winning first prize.

Solar Wheelchair

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University of Virginia graduate student Craig Ungaro sits in the solar-powered wheelchair he and fellow graduate students Dennis Waldron, left, Duncan McGillivray and Ankit Shah (not pictured) designed and built for a World Cerebral Palsy Day competition. Ungaro, Waldron, McGillivray and Shah are doing research work at NASA Langley and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), and designed and built the chair at the NIA. U.Va. undergrads Kyung Kim and Maria Michael were also part of the team. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

Waldron mostly looked at it as a good teambuilding exercise and something fun to do.

"I love working with my hands and building things and being able to see a finished product," he said. "That was rewarding in and of itself."

But then something even more rewarding happened: they actually won, and to the tune of $20,000.

Waldron, McGillivray, Ungaro and Shah are graduate students from the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science who are working at NASA's Langley Research Center and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA). They, along with undergraduate students Kyung Kim and Maria Michael, exhibited the wheelchair and received an award check from United Cerebral Palsy on May 10 in a ceremony at the University of Virginia.

McGillivray says he was "ecstatic" about winning the award, especially considering how stiff the competition was.

"It's a worldwide competition and there's a lot of really good engineering teams and schools out there," he said.

Out of the approximately 20 teams that submitted ideas, the team from U.Va. was the only one to develop an actual prototype — and it took a lot of work.

They started with an electric wheelchair they ordered off Craigslist for $275. After receiving the chair they only had about a month to design and build their prototype. Most of the work was done at the NIA's Research and Innovation Laboratories facility.

"A lot of the engineering was on the fly," said McGillivray.

"We rebuilt it two times in the last week," added Ungaro.

The prototype they developed was inspired by convertible cars with retractable roofs — something that was difficult to engineer. As their deadline approached, they struggled to get the solar panels to self deploy. That complication could've brought the whole project to a grinding halt, but, says McGillivray, it was teamwork that kept them going.

"One person would almost give up and the other person would just jump in and spur them on and come up with a different idea of how to fix the problem," he said. "So it was a really nice collaborative effort."

The finished prototype features custom-fabricated solar panels that take up a little over one square meter when deployed, but don't add significantly to the chair's length, width or height when stored. On a fully charged battery, the wheelchair can run for more than 4 hours at a speed of 5 mph. It can run indefinitely at 1 mph on solar power alone, a feature made possible by the chair's high-efficiency solar cells.

The chair also includes USB power outlets, which can be used to charge cellphones, GPS systems, tablet computers and items like fans and reading lights.

Mool Gupta, the team's advisor and Langley Professor in Residence at the University of Virginia and the NIA, says that participating in the competition was a great learning experience for his team. He was thrilled to hear that they'd won the prize, but more important, he says, is that they worked together on a project meant to help improve society.

"I'm very proud of them for what they have accomplished," he said.

The wheelchair will go to good use, too. The team plans to use the prize money to make some final refinements, after which they'll ship the prototype to Alper Sirvan, the gentleman in Turkey who pitched the idea for a solar-powered wheelchair to World CP Day. Sirvan is living with cerebral palsy. The remaining prize money will go back to United Cerebral Palsy in support of future World CP Day competitions.

Gupta hopes that this prototype is just a starting point for something even greater. He imagines a future design that incorporates NASA technology — specifically flexible solar panels.

Though they won't be commercially available for several more months, the flexible panels, which are thin and can be rolled up, would be cheaper and lighter than custom-built solar panels.

Waldron is already intrigued by the idea.

"It would just give you a lot more flexibility in the design," he said. "It would relax your constraints a little bit."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman