TU Students Engineer Independence for Local Girl

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Research skills, creativity and a caring vision helped University of Tulsa electrical engineering students provide a whole new level of mobility and independence for a local girl with cerebral palsy.

Eight-year-old Abigail Laipple’s condition prevented her from verbal communication and independent movement, and the cost of an electronic wheelchair was out of her family’s reach. A group of TU engineering students took on her cause, and conceived, designed and built a customized electric wheelchair specialized to meet her needs.

The final version of the wheelchair will be presented to Abigail and her parents at a special event hosted by the TU Department of Electrical Engineering on Nov. 29. TU students, professors and project donors will also be in attendance to celebrate Abigail’s new independence and the power of engineering design to make a difference in people’s lives.

Electrical engineering students combined software and technology so that Abigail could interact with her world through switches and a screen that she can access easily. The electric wheelchair is equipped with custom hardware, sensors, robotics controller and a wireless remote control.

Students have worked on the project for more than two years and spent more than 2,000 hours perfecting the design. Alumni, friends and corporate sponsors rallied behind the project and raised about $15,000 for the specialty equipment.

Abigail has inspired TU professors working on her project to expand their research on designing and developing devices to aid persons with disabilities. Kaveh Ashenayi, professor of electrical engineering; Theodore Manikas, assistant professor of electrical engineering; and Steven Tipton, professor of mechanical engineering have applied for a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Research to Aid Persons with Disabilities (RAPD) program to build on the work they have done with Abigail.

Once funding has been secured, undergraduate students from both the electrical and mechanical engineering departments will form interdisciplinary teams to undertake various proposed design projects. Under the supervision of Ashenayi, Manikas and Tipton, the students will work with the Saint Francis Rehabilitation Facility to develop products to address specific needs of local persons with disabilities. The students will also receive technical support from Sunrise Medical to aid their design efforts.