Date August 5, 2021
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Nathan Brown: Toward a better, more versatile wheelchair

With the help of a Royce Fellowship from the Swearer Center, Nathan Brown is developing a wheelchair design with the aim of increasing mobility for users on both indoor and outdoor terrain.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Growing up with two great-grandparents who used wheelchairs, Nathan Brown saw first-hand how difficult it can be for wheelchair users to get around in certain situations. 

“They worked fine indoors or on pavement,” Brown recalled, “but as soon as there was a little gravel or a few steps, it became really difficult to get around.”

Now a senior at Brown concentrating in biomedical engineering, Brown is working to develop a new wheelchair design that works as well outdoors as it does inside. Dubbed Trailfinder, the design aims to combine the stability of wheelchairs specially designed for the outdoors with the compact maneuverability of chairs designed primarily for indoor use.

“One way we’ve described it is to compare it to tennis shoes,” Brown said. “They’re designed for tennis, but they’re also good walking shoes, or running shoes, or just shoes you can wear every day. So we wanted to design a chair that was good indoors, but could also work on dirt walking trails and rougher surfaces.”

The project started with conversations between Joseph Crisco, a professor of orthopedics and engineering; David Olaleye, a biomedical engineering master’s student who graduated last May; and Brown.

“It was just an idea at the time,” Brown said. “Professor Crisco handed it over to us and we started working on it.”

The initial design, which became the subject of Olaleye’s master’s thesis, altered the wheel configuration of a standard wheelchair found in hospitals or assisted living facilities to increase stability. With help from Brown, Olaleye used computer-aided design software to position the wheels in a way that increased the angles at which the chair could be expected to tip.

The key innovation was a new configuration for the front wheels. Unlike a standard chair that has two large wheels in the back and two smaller ones in the front, Trailfinder replaces the two front wheels with a single retractable wheel. In “trail mode,” the third wheel extends out in front of the chair, dramatically increasing the chair’s wheel base and making it more stable. In “indoor mode,” the wheel retracts under the seat, giving the chair the same compactness and ability to negotiate tight corners as a standard chair.

This summer, Brown and collaborator Daniel McDermott, a fellow undergraduate, are guiding the project through a new phase. With the help of a Royce Fellowship — a summer grant awarded by the Swearer Center that supports independent student research and study projects — Brown is reaching out to wheelchair users and assisted living facilities both in Providence and back in his home state of Georgia.

“We want to get people’s thoughts on what we have so far,” Brown said. “Based on our current design, we want to see what we can improve based on people’s experience.”

The interviews are ongoing now. Brown and McDermott plan to present their results to the University community later in the fall.

I think that whatever someone does they can find a way to help people, but for me choosing biomedical engineering was a way to really have a positive impact on people’s lives.

Nathan Brown
An image of Nathan Brown

Ultimately, Brown hopes the design will one day result in a product that increases mobility for wheelchair users. The idea of using technology to improve people’s lives is what first sparked his interest in biomedical engineering, Brown said. A few years ago, his father had knee replacement surgery, which greatly improved his ability to get around. That got Brown thinking about what goes into creating an artificial knee.

“It had such a positive impact on my dad’s life, and I wondered: Who were the people who did this?” he said. “Is that something I can do? Since then I’ve always looked for ways to give back, and I think the Royce Fellowship is one of those things.”

He’d like to continue finding ways to help people after graduation.

“The space I want to be in is being able to apply what I know to help people,” Brown said. “I think that whatever someone does they can find a way to help people, but for me choosing biomedical engineering was a way to really have a positive impact on people’s lives.”