Military Medicine takes us inside an unique engineering and research center

For military medicine, the mission to save lives is also a mission to make lives better, and you can see science advancing on this new medical frontier in laboratories and hospitals and at universities all across the country. Next, a look at a unique engineering and research center in Pittsburgh from the PBS documentary Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield.

TRANSCRIPT

For military medicine, the mission to save lives is also a mission to make lives better, and you can see science advancing on this new medical frontier in laboratories and hospitals and at universities all across the country.

Next, a look at a unique engineering and research center in Pittsburgh from the PBS documentary 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield.'

At the human engineering research laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh, engineers and designers imagine and manufacture devices that make independent living easier for anyone with a disability.

It's easier if you do an open grip on the door because it kind of comes with you.

Okay.

The laboratory's logo gives the Pittsburgh Panther mascot wheels because wheelchairs are the main focus.

We do wheelchairs and robotics and prosthetics and cognitive aids and wireless technologies, virtual reality.

It's here that the lab's director, Rory Cooper, combines his PhD in engineering and his personal experience as a disabled veteran.

Cooper was an Army sergeant stationed in Germany in 1980 when he was hit by a truck while bicycling to his base, leaving him paralyzed below the waist.

Determined to make a difference for all disabled veterans, Cooper decided to study engineering and began building better wheelchairs.

He took up racing, won a bronze medal in the Paralympic Games in 1988, and still competes.

His current challenge -- making wheelchairs with robotic arms.

Some people that use wheelchairs, they have limited use of their upper extremities, so their arms as well as their legs.

The first designs use keyboards and then joysticks to control the arms, and now there's an app for that.

So this makes it a lot more intuitive, especially because people are already used to using phones and tablets.

I'm just saying up or down, but then all the joints are moving in synchrony in order to move me up and down.

So the robot's thinking, 'Rory wants the bottle to go down,' and it's, how do I need to move the joints to do down?

So, in a sense, we're sharing the control.

The robot is doing part of the control, and I'm doing part of the control.

So I'll just go up again, and now, if you watch, you'll see that the shoulder, the elbow, and the wrist are all moving, so it's doing those calculations.

Instead of me moving every joint and have to do all of that thinking, the robot does some of the thinking for me.

To build and manage these complex robots and devices, Cooper makes sure there are veterans and wheelchair users involved at every level.

What we try to do is bring all the disciplines together, so physicians and engineers and therapists, and include veterans and people with disabilities and bring them into those professions and use technology to, as much as possible, ameliorate the disability but also promote full inclusion and full participation in society, in every aspect of society.

This is the Mobility Enhancement Robotic Wheelchair, or MEBot.

Graduate student Andrea Sundaram is working with Cooper on the MEBot, a powered wheelchair that can keep the seat level while navigating steps or uneven ground.

What we try to do is make a wheelchair that can go everywhere that current wheelchairs can go and then go places where they can't.

This self-leveling chair may mean both better and safer mobility.

They had 100,000 reports of emergency-room visits by wheelchair users in a single year.

65 to 80 percent of those visits are attributed to tips and falls.

This is what happens when you have a war.

Medicine starts sort of at one place, and it rapidly has to evolve to another place.

And, for us in rehab, it was the same way.

The trauma surgeons and the acute care surgeons, they figured out how to keep a lot of people alive that wouldn't have normally stayed alive before, and then that gave us in rehab the obligation to help them maximize their function, return to participation.

To see the full documentary, 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield,' visit pbs.org/militarymedicine.