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Optimizing Wheelchair Designs for Paralympic Athletes

Tuesday, March 13, 2018
The PyeongChang Paralympics could be the last games where wheelchair athletes compete using mass-produced wheelchairs.
Scientists and engineers at the University of Waterloo have developed the first-ever method to systematically optimize wheelchair designs to suit individual athletes and their respective neuro-musculoskeletal (brain-body) systems. 
The new method of wheelchair design optimization is achieved using predictive computer modelling and simulation. The method replaces the conventional trial-and-error approach and can lead to faster and cheaper subject-specific designs.
“We optimized our wheelchair designs for two things; increasing sport performance and minimizing the risk of injuries, which are both important for Team Canada athletes,” said Brock Laschowski, an engineering graduate student at the University of Waterloo, who detailed the new method in a recent publication. "Using such technology, Team Canada Paralympic athletes, including wheelchair basketball and wheelchair curling, could potentially perform better than previous teams."
“Though we probably won’t observe immediate results, like more Paralympic medals, using our computational methods, we would expect long-term benefits like reductions in the risks musculoskeletal injuries from using optimized wheelchairs.”
The Waterloo group collaborated with Curling Canada and the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario to produce more efficient techniques of developing subject-specific optimized wheelchair designs for Team Canada athletes. 
To accomplish this objective, they needed to develop relatively accurate computer models of the Paralympian’s musculoskeletal and central nervous systems. Their recent study focused on modelling the biomechanics of one athlete, with the information needed to design optimized wheelchairs. The computer techniques for modelling the athletes is universal, and therefore capable of assessing those of different heights, weights, genders, and athletic abilities.
“Based upon this algorithm, when someone wants to design a wheelchair using predictive modelling and simulation they can try out many different sport equipment designs, quickly and cheaply,” said co-author John McPhee, a professor of systems design engineering at Waterloo and Canada Research Chair in biomechatronic system dynamics. “Instead of the slow and expensive process of building and testing prototypes one after the other, we can explore millions of different possible designs before choosing the optimal equipment solution.” 
The most recent publication of this three-part research project, additionally co-authored with Dr. Naser Mehrabi, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo appears in the Journal of Sports Engineering.


About the University of Waterloo
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Media Contact:

Ryon Jones
University of Waterloo
519-888-4567 ext. 30031

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