Rory Cooper is a US Army veteran. He was involved in an accident that caused significant damage to his spinal cord, leaving him in a wheelchair. But Mr. Cooper never gave up, earning a PhD in 1989 and becoming Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientist of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh. With the help of some Kinova ® JACO2 robotic arms, which he bought for research purposes, he dedicates his time and energy to improving of the lives of people with disabilities.
1- What led you to this field of research?
I was hit by a truck while serving as a Soldier in the US Army, sustaining a spinal cord injury. With the support of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, I earned BS and MENG Degrees in engineering from California Polytechnic State University. After working for Pacific Gas & Electric for a short while; I earned a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering with a concentration in Signals and Systems, and Bio-engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara. My first academic position was at California State University in Sacramento. I taught control systems, robotics, rehabilitation engineering, and medical instrumentation. I’ve been designing assistive devices for nearly 40 years; it is my passion to apply technology to help people with disabilities and older adults.
2- What is the primary goal of your research?
The primary goal of our research and development is to make a positive difference in the lives of people with disabilities and older adults. The over arching goal is to promote health, employment, and full inclusion with respect for all people with disabilities and older adults.
3- You use Kinova’s JACO2 robotic arm. Can you tell us why?
The Kinova JACO2 robotic arm has a lot of potential to help people with disabilities. It is sleek, dexterous, and reliable. We have used it extensively to develop more effective and faster user interfaces to allow people to efficiently perform needed tasks. We have also been working on tools to measure improvements in function with software, hardware and user interfaces.
4- What do you like about JACO?
The Kinova JACO2 is one of the few “Assistive Robots” that one could truly consider a robot. Its physical design and software, as well as cost make it a good tool for research and development. In the future assistive robots with higher load capacities and lower costs are needed.
“We need more people with disabilities and people without disabilities learning and working side-by-side” -Rory Cooper
5- What have you accomplished so far?
It is difficult for me to say what we have accomplished thus far. Our most important lasting legacy is likely to be the people that we have trained or at least influenced. I try to instil in people the importance of working as a team to include people with disabilities and older adults to find lasting, effective, and affordable solutions. HERL has had the good fortune of creating and helping to bring to market a number of devices that have and are making a real difference. Such products as Surge Handrim (padded wheelchair rim), Virtual Seating Coach (app which helps positioning the seat and its tilt), and PneuChair (compressed-air-powered wheelchair) are making a positive impact. HERL has also launched several small companies; some have merged to become larger companies, which is increasing opportunity. These are just some examples, and HERL’s influence continues to grow.
6- What would be the most important technological breakthroughs that we could dream up to help disabled persons?
I think that that are several technological breakthroughs needed. They can be grouped into: (1) Robotics and Automation; (2) Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Coaches; (3) Measurement, Training and Service Delivery; (4) Ergonomics and Health Promotion; and (5) Access to Appropriate Technology and Services.
7- What would it take to convince more people get involved in the rehabilitation field?
We need more people with disabilities and people without disabilities learning and working side-by-side. Our world needs to do a better job of embracing diversity and how it makes it a better place for all of us. Our experiences, shared and separate, make us more creative and effective.