UMass engineering students lend a hand to the disabled

By Nick Bush

(Matthew Harrison/Collegian)

Four University of Massachusetts engineering students found a way to lend a helping hand to individuals with disabilities eager to spend more time in the great outdoors.

Over the past year, senior mechanical engineering majors Matthew Jarrett, Adam Rhodes, Andrew LaPré and Sean Moore developed the River Portaging Gurney (RPG), a device that should allow disabled individuals to take part in kayaking and other outdoor activities previously considered out of reach. The team was the winner of the 2009 UMass Senior Capstone Design Competition, which took place last month.

The RPG is a gurney that folds up compactly enough to fit in the end of a kayak, but when unfolded can carry the weight of one person, allowing a disabled individual to navigate portions of kayak trips involving walking over rocks and shallow rapids.

“There is definitely a market for this device,” said Rhodes. “For people without the use of their legs, this will absolutely help them [get over difficult terrain].”

“Currently there is no device for white water kayaks that could fit inside and aid in the portaging of kayakers with physical disabilities,” said Jarrett. “Right now, this prevents the participation of such individuals in similar sports.”

The team worked with Zoe Crowley, a disabled kayaker and senior at the university, along with the UMass Outing Club.

“I’m incredibly impressed,” said Crowley. “They have taken something that seemed like a pipe dream, and made it possible.”

The team also received a $225 investment from Northampton-based All Out Adventures Inc., which lists promoting “health, community, and independence for people with disabilities and their family and friends through outdoor recreation” as its mission statement, and has expressed great interest in the device’s potential.

Human factors came into play in the design of the RPG according to Moore. “This is a device that had to be used,” he said. “We had to make a few sacrifices to get it to [work].”

The engineers chose aluminum because it is lightweight, inexpensive and easily-machined compared to other metals. They also utilized fiberglass for its high tensile strength, as well as rot-resistant and comfortable Neoprene. The RPG is collapsible to 27 percent of its original length, allowing it to easily fit into a kayak or canoe.

“We met our goals,” said LaPré. “The RPG had to collapse, hold 200 pounds of body weight and weigh less than 10 pounds itself,” all while remaining cost-effective to produce. The team is now working on generating real-world testing, market analysis and designing larger harness sizes to accommodate a wide range of body types.

“The hardest part was getting it to fold up into such a small space,” continued LaPré. “The biggest plus is that it is going straight into use [at the UMass Outing Club], which was a lot of motivation for us.”

“I feel very accomplished,” said Jarrett, who noted that over 80 hours of machining went into constructing the prototype, which was ultimately donated to the Outing Club. “I think that our attention to detail created something that will have an impact.”

Nick Bush can be reached at [email protected]