Mark Villanueva, a Morgan’s Inspiration Island employee, tried out the PneuChair, which uses compressed air for power instead of batteries and electronics. The San Antonio, Texas, water park was the first location to use the wheelchair. Credit: the University of Pittsburgh

A new lightweight, high-powered wheelchair that is powered by high-pressurized air instead of batteries or electronics is offering users new recreational opportunities.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have created the PneuChair, a pneumatic wheelchair that forgoes the traditional heavy battery energy source for high-pressured air.  It runs on 4,500 psi. This make it both significantly lighter than other power chairs and also waterproof, enabling users to take the PneuChair to lakes, beaches and water parks.

Rory Cooper, the director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories—a joint effort of Pitt, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs—said in an interview with R&D Magazine that the PneuChair has a number of advantages over other power wheelchairs, including an infinite number of charges.

“It’s a pneumatically powered wheelchair using high-pressure compressed air,” Cooper said. “We are using a rotary piston motor, which allows us to get high torque at low speeds, which makes the technology feasible.

“It is essentially infinitely chargeable and rechargeable without the memory problems that batteries are often plagued by,” he added. “The system will last longer than most wheelchairs today.”

By using compressed air, the researchers can create a simpler design and eliminate the need for electronics.

According to Cooper, the chairs would be ideal for nursing homes that often have problems managing the battery powered chairs. The PneuChair takes about 10 minutes to recharge, while traditional power chairs can take close to eight hours to charge.

“We are very engaged with the user community, so we constantly communicate and survey users and one of the themes that comes up frequently is the challenges they face with battery technology,” Cooper said.

The high-pressure compressed air tanks that power the chair.

One of the main advantages of the new chair is that it is significantly lighter than its counterparts.

“It only weighs 120 pounds, which is about a third of the weight of a comparable power chair,” Cooper said. “Basically you can lift it up and put it in a car or an SUV with a couple of strong friends.”

Cooper said this will help large box stores and grocery stores better manage their fleet of wheelchairs.

The chair is also waterproof because it does not use any electronics, offering users a number of activities that may have been previously impossible.

“If you want to go to a water park or a beach or something like that, that’s not a problem,” Cooper said.  “It will provide them mobility that they didn’t otherwise have, which would be the beaches and the waterparks and things like that.”

The chairs were first used at Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park in San Antonio, a three-acre water park that is fully accessible for people with disabilities.

Cooper said his group has filed for patent protection and has licensed the technology to the SOAR Foundation. Different prototypes of the chair, as well as a similar-style scooter, are currently being tested.