Team modifying wheelchair for UI Paralympic team

By Michael Logli

University wheelchair track coach Adam Bleakney approached Mike Bragg, current associate dean of the College of Engineering, with a request to help his team perform better and move faster.

More than a year later, the efforts of the Registered Student Organization Racing Wheelchair Aerodynamic Design Team, created by the students Bragg chose to assist him, have made that possible.

Currently, Bleakney and the University team are in the Beijing Paralympic Games, but they have already begun to use some of the methods that testing has shown to be effective.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of research before this,” said Greg Busch, graduate student and current research leader of the project. “But there were theories that we tested.”

Busch said one of the main goals of the testing is learning how to reduce the amount of drag, the force working against a moving object, through different wheelchair designs. The group also tested theories on whether the position of the racer made a difference in drag levels and made sure the models would be durable and comfortable for the racer.

The results varied in effectiveness, but some were surprising, Busch said.

The testing done in late 2007 questioned the effectiveness of fairings, or inserts, onto the wheelchair that would cover gaps between connecting pieces and allow forces to move smoothly along the chair. The most successful fairings reduced drag levels by 12 percent, which Busch said was larger than anticipated.

Racers also tried tucking their heads in and keeping their legs tucked into the seat. This reduced drag by 10 percent, Busch said. The two changes combined produced a surprising decrease in drag.

“We tried different configurations,” Busch said. “We were able to reduce drag to within 25 percent.”

These configurations are based off scale models the RSO made with funding from the University’s Student Organization Research Fee. The group also borrowed a wind tunnel from the aerospace engineering department to determine levels of drag.

The next step for the team is to build a complete usable model and test drag reduction on a real track, Busch said.

“It gives us a base to work off of for starting testing on the field to see if the data in the wind tunnel correlates to the real world,” Bleakney said in a press release.

However, there are problems with this test that need to be overcome before it can be considered accurate, Busch said.

The first problem is creating a full-sized model with their current materials.

The team also needs to take into account the effects of gravity and friction on speed during their real-life simulation.

The most difficult challenge may be finding a way to measure the amount of power needed to propel the wheelchair around the track, Busch said.

The research team hopes to eventually create a model for the wheelchair track team to use, and for all athletes to use, that maximizes performance, Busch said.

“The smaller changes we can make the better,” he said.