Before going into the military, Dr. Rory Cooper was extremely athletic and never imagined designing robotic wheelchairs. When he joined the army, he naturally gravitated toward sports. He represented his branch of the military in countless track and field events. But that’s until a truck ran him over and left him in a wheelchair for life.
If you ask Rory if he wished he could walk, he would tell you he feels bad for people who don’t get to be in a wheelchair since he can wheel faster than a person could run. But he was initially surprised at the lack of innovation in wheelchair tech when he first got his chair. Since his accident, he has dedicated his life to improving mobility for people with disabilities.
He currently heads the Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, PA. If you have seen a wheelchair in the last 15 years, he’s probably designed it or improved it. His lab can ideate, fabricate and test ideas in-house. They are currently working on AI and better algorithms to help people with limited mobility improve their quality of life with robotic wheelchairs. These chairs can identify obstacles, grab items off a shelf and navigate urban terrain.
I enjoyed getting to spend time with Dr. Cooper. He is an incredible inspiration and his lab is pushing technology past it’s limits to improve the quality of life for people who use wheelchairs.
This is one of three episodes I directed for this season of Freethink’s flagship series, “Superhuman.”