By Ryan Smith

Astrophysicist and quadriplegic Jesse Leaman is designing a smart wheelchair with robotic arms. He hopes the invention, which he calls an iChair, will help other quadriplegics live more productive and independent lives. Until Leaman’s robotics team at UNR receives funding, he works as an unpaid volunteer, commuting to campus on public transportation.

Jesse Leaman struggles to live in a world that isn’t built for him.

Getting out of bed every morning, commuting to work, opening a door – the majority of Leaman’s daily activities require the assistance of others.

Leaman is a quadriplegic,  and he’s spent the last 17 years designing wheelchair technology that helps people with severe disabilities be more productive.

Leaman’s newest project is the iChair. Like a typical smartchair, it includes a motorized chair, a computer and sensors. But, Leaman has even bigger plans. He’s creating a co-robot.

“That’s just the beginning,” he said. “Because once I’m going to be able to add the robotic arms, I’ll have the ability to eat and drink again on my own, press buttons and I can even do some nonverbal communication like celebrating or doing the robot dance.”

In 1996, Leaman jumped from his parent’s patio into a snow bank below and landed on his head. The impact crushed his third, fourth, and fifth cervical vertebrae.

According to Leaman, adding the arms will help people like him get back into the workforce.

In a 2012 report by Cornell University, only 25 percent of Nevadans with walking disabilities were employed and little more than 15 percent had full-time jobs. Cornell reported similar statistics for the United States, as a whole.

“The iChair, as it is now, is already really useful for making a person who can’t use their arms or legs, or a quad, to make them more employable because they can interact and work on a computer just the way anyone else can — even make them more efficient.”

Jesse Leaman’s smart chair includes a laptop with an infrared tracking system so he can work on a computer like any other able-bodied person. He also has it outfitted with a backup camera, GoPro and speakers. CREDIT: Ryan Smith

Jesse Leaman’s smart chair includes a laptop with an infrared tracking system so he can work on a computer like any other able-bodied person. He also has it outfitted with a backup camera, GoPro and speakers. CREDIT: Ryan Smith

A PhD in astrophysics and a former Post Doc. in space science at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Leaman designed his first wheelchair technology as an intern at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It was just two years after his accident.

With other NASA engineers, Leaman connected a back-up camera to his wheelchair so he wouldn’t break anything in the lab.

“I was faced with the challenge of having to visit a lot of different scientists who could be mentors in the future,” Leaman said. “And, I had to go into all these strange offices and I was worried about colliding with objects and people because I can’t turn around to see what’s behind me. So, I was inspired to use the technology from the big rig [trucks] that put the rearview camera by the windshield.”

All of his innovations since spawned from necessity.

“It’s always about being more efficient when you’re in this situation, because you know very often you can just end up bedridden if no one comes to help you get up,” Leaman said. “So, I have to be as productive as possible when I’m up and about.”

Leaman recently turned all his attention to assistive technology. Following his Post Doc. work with NASA, he couldn’t find a job in his academic field.

Money became tight and eventually Leaman left California for Reno. He now works as a volunteer in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Advanced Robotics and Automation Laboratory — home base for his iChair research.

To become a salaried employee at the university, Leaman needs funding for his project.

He recently applied for a National Science Foundation grant which would pay his salary and give him graduate students to help him write the code that will bring the robotic arms to life. He is also developing 3D mapping technology which will help wheelchairs navigate obstacles on their own.

Without the grant, however, Leaman said his research is progressing slowly.

“Without an outside grant, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish this research, not on my own,” Leaman said. “It means that my research is going much slower and I have to spend out of pocket if I have to buy a new sensor. But, it also means I’m focusing a lot on things that I can do. For example, the Access Report is something I can do. Filming, editing and publishing, I can do that part. So that keeps me busy.”

Leaman and the ARA laboratory won’t know if they received the NSF grant until July. If they don’t receive it, Leaman said he will just apply again.

When Leaman isn’t working on his research, he uses the GoPro camera on his wheelchair to document accessibility issues around Reno. He’s made nine videos highlighting opportunities for access improvements like automatic door openers, sidewalk cuts and wheelchair ramps.

“I would like to start documenting different accessibility levels first around Reno and then eventually around the nation and possibly around the world,” Leaman said. “Because unfortunately when people think of accessible they think of a ramp or an elevator, but sometimes it’s much more subtle than that.”

Without a paying job, Leaman’s problems are more subtle than accessibility.

While he waits for a grant, Leaman gets by on a NASA pension. It’s not enough to support his needs though, he said.

“Well, I certainly appreciate all the gifts I’ve been given,” Leaman said. “I try to give back by trying to make the best of myself and give back to the community. All I can be is grateful, right?”


One thought on “Transforming the Wheelchair: Co-robots in Disguise

  1. Great story, Ryan. You really stretched out on this project in terms of story development, sound recording, and audio production skills. This may be the shortest story you’ve ever filed 🙂 but it is deep and nuanced. You really captured Jesse’s brilliance, humor and challenges. I bet he likes this story. It was a real pleasure working alongside you this week. Stay in touch. And make MORE RADIO!

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