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Engineering Students Build a Custom Wheelchair
Aggie Innovation Space finds a way to enable a canine cancer survivor to run again.

Last year, when 17-year old Kita lost her right hind leg to bone cancer, he adjusted quickly to getting around on three legs. But relying on one less limb meant Kita got tired more easily and wasn’t able to complete the long walks he always enjoyed. Unfortunately, standard pet wheelchairs didn’t work for Kita.

His owner, Michelle Lebsock, was determined to find a solution. She found lots of ideas online about using 3-D printers to create custom dog wheelchairs, but had no experience in this area. So Michelle contacted the Aggie Innovation Space (AIS) lab at New Mexico State University for advice on how to embark on the do-it-yourself project.

When she first spoke to engineering students Natalie Perez, Abdiel Jimenez, and Arturo Dominguez, they were not only eager help Michelle, but wanted to take on the project as their own. It became a semester long project that far surpassed Michelle’s ideas of what was possible.

“The students worked all semester to create a functional and ergonomic device that was custom-built for Kita,” recalls Michelle. “Even though the idea of 3-D printing brought me to the lab, the final product used traditional materials, and the students worked tirelessly to make sure each piece was exactly right."

Throughout the fall, Natalie, Abdiel, and Arturo met with Kita and Michelle many times to determine the correct height, comfort, and restraint requirements of the device. They also wanted to make the wheelchair was easy to put together so it would be portable and user friendly.

One of the challenges was in adjusting the device while making sure it was still supportive and comfortable.

“As we adjusted the saddle mechanism in the device,” explained Arturo, “we had to be sure not to pinch or irritate the underbelly and other sensitive areas of the dog."

As you can imagine, it took many versions to get to the perfect wheelchair.

The team’s first design allowed Kita to move around freely, but the students wanted to further adjust the wheelchair to make it even more comfortable and functional. With each version they would study and evaluate Kita’s movement in the wheelchair to make changes.

During the final test, Kita was able to run for the first time since her surgery and move much more naturally. That made their months of hard work worth it.

"This project reminded us how engineers can enhance quality of life and made us realize that our duty as engineers is not just for people and the environment, but for our furry friends that make our lives happier,” said Natalie.

This project allowed the students to apply their engineering skills to a real life project that directly benefited a dog and her family. What an amazing win-win!

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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