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CEAS Students Invent Smart Wheelchair Cushion


A team of mechanical engineering students won the 2018 CEAS Senior Design Showcase with a wheelchair cushion cover designed to prevent pressure wounds.

Date: 4/26/2018 3:00:00 PM
By: Brandon Pytel
Phone: (513) 556-4686

UC ingot  
Team poses with wheelchair and cushion.
The sensory wheelchair cushion team from left to right: Kaitlin Burnam, Spencer King, Elizabeth Smith, Nicholas Stelzer and Nathan Clemans.

Pressure wounds, or sores caused by the build-up of temperature and pressure, sometimes require surgery and can even be life threatening. Surgery involves an extended recovery time, which means time away from school, work and social events. And not having surgery can lead to an infection, which could be fatal. For those with physical disabilities, these wounds can be a constant problem.

One senior design team at the University of Cincinnati saw an opportunity to solve this problem. Its goal was to create a product that prevented pressure wounds from forming in the first place.

“Pressure wounds are big problem for those who have decreased sensation in their lower body,” said Kaitlin Burnam, a computer science graduate student and supervisor of the design team. “The whole purpose of this product was to be that sensation for them.”

Burnam initially encountered the problem of pressure wounds through her time as assistant coach for the Cincinnati IceBreakers, the local sled hockey team. One of her players kept missing practice and school because of the ailment. The father of the player approached Burnam with the idea of a cushion as a preventative measure.

“I wanted to do something with this idea, but I didn’t have time to do it on my own,” said Burnam. “That’s when Center for Intelligence Maintenance Systems (IMS) at UC recommended presenting it as a senior design project.”

The team, which consisted of four mechanical engineering students, set out to create a preventative and alert-based system that lets users know when and where to shift weight to prevent pressure wounds.

“We wanted to do something that helped those who are hurting,” said Nicholas Stelzer, one of the mechanical engineering students on the team. “We wanted to leave a better legacy for ourselves as engineers.”

After meeting with experts at the Daniel Drake Medical Center, as well as representatives from sensory measurement company Tekscan, the team determined there was a need for an inexpensive solution that used wireless technology and functioned around the clock.  

The team drew upon their education at UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) to create a cushion cover embedded with intentionally placed sensors. The final product had nine pressure sensors and seven temperature sensors that measured body weight and placement. The product also used Bluetooth to link directly with a smartphone application the team designed. If users of the cushion cover were stationary in a high-pressure area for too long, the sensors would pick up this shifted weight and the smartphone application would alert the users to readjust.

The team also wanted to create a system that could fit anyone’s lifestyle. Not all users or seats are the same, so the team created the cover design as a universal solution to the problem. The cover can easily go over cushion on a wheelchair, car seat or desk chair.

In the end, the team’s hard work paid off. The team’s product won the 2018 CEAS Senior Design Showcase, which included a $1,000 award.

“This award was validation of all the hard work and effort we’ve put in as a team,” said Stelzer. “It’s rewarding to know what we’ve been doing is actually making a difference.”

Several UC faculty have already encouraged the team to apply for a patent, as well as the UC Accelerator Program, a grant that could give the team enough money to mass-produce the product, while also exploring an automated design.

“Right now, doctors recommend releasing the pressure by lifting up and sitting back down every 10 to 15 minutes throughout the day,” said Nathan Clemans, one of the senior design team members. “That’s a huge time commitment.”

An automated design using collected data from the sensors on the cushion could automatically regulate the cushion pressure for users who are too busy, distracted or incapable of constantly adjusting their position.

Whatever happens with this technology, the team is grateful to have had the opportunity to lay the groundwork for future advancements. They hope this product can help prevent pressure wounds in the future, while making a smart, comfortable and safe seat for people everywhere.

The Sensing Wheelchair Cushion senior design team consisted of the following mechanical engineering students: Nathan Clemans, Spencer King, Elizabeth Smith and Nicholas Stelzer. They were supervised by Kaitlin Burnam and Hossein Davari and sponsored by the UC Center for Intelligence Maintenance Systems.