Walking into Sujatha Srinivasan’s lab in IIT-Madras is like entering a sci-fi movie set, with futuristic looking prosthetics models on table-tops and assistive devices in various stages of design and development. The Associate Professor, who heads the Rehabilitation Research and Device Development Lab (R2D2) at IIT-Madras, leads a team of researchers / engineers of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

With the goal of developing affordable indigenous solutions, they are working on a range of high-quality assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, and orthotic and prosthetic aids to help those with locomotor disabilities become more independent. The most well-known, and eagerly awaited, of these is the standing wheelchair (SWC), which has gone through several modifications.

Patent, awards The lab has developed other rehabilitation devices that are being fine-tuned, including a swimming pool lift, a body-movement driven wheelchair and a walk-chair for children with cerebral palsy, improved prosthetic and orthotic knee-joints, and an add-on attachment to a conventional wheelchair that converts it to a three-wheeled vehicle, dramatically improving its usability in the rural outdoors. The R2D2 group has filed for ten Indian patents for various devices. And Sujatha’s students have won over a dozen awards for design.

Sujatha, a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT-M and an MS at the University of Toledo, US, worked with a company manufacturing prosthetics in the US for about eight years before doing her PhD in Biomechanics at the Ohio State University, Columbus. She joined the IIT-Madras faculty in 2008, and set up this one-of-a-kind lab that focuses on assistive devices.

Standing wheelchair Over 10 million people in the country suffer from locomotor disabilities caused by diseases such as multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, or as the result of an amputation or the process of aging. According to World Health Organisation numbers, as far back as 2003, about 20 million disabled people worldwide who needed a wheelchair did not have access to one.

Completely mechanical and not dependent on electrical power, the standing wheelchair meets an important need of persons with spinal cord injuries and the resultant severe physical impairments.

Says Sujatha: “Those with lower-limb injuries may have to use a wheelchair all their lives. Seated in the same position through the day can result in pressure sores, lower blood circulation and greater dependence on other people for basic needs. One way to overcome these problems is to provide a mechanism to enable the person to stand.”

When R2D2 researchers and project officers Vivek Sarda and Swostik Dash demonstrate the standing wheelchair (SWC), it’s clear that it is a sturdy and easy-to-use device that, at the proposed cost, could be a game-changer for the disabled. Both Swostik and Vivek did their dual degree (B.Tech, M.Tech) in Mechanical Engineering from IIT-M.

Last year, the SWC project received a grant of £300,000 (over four years) from the UK-based Wellcome Trust. And, soon after, the TTK group committed ₹3.68 crore to all of R2D2 activities over the next five years, from its CSR programme. The lab is now named the TTK Centre for Rehabilitation Research and Device Development.

Such long-term funding, says Sujatha, is crucial in commercialising the devices and making them more affordable for the common man. They not only support project expenses such as travel and salaries but also the manufacture of prototypes and the extensive testing process, which is essential before certification can be sought for larger-scale manufacture.

Industry, user partners Says Sujatha: “I really want this lab to be a launchpad where people learn to design and make prototypes of all kinds of assistive devices, and then spin off to set up manufacturing units on their own, with R2D2 providing R&D support. This will make such equipment more widely available and less expensive.”

The latest prototype of the SWC was built by R2D2’s industry partner Phoenix Medical Systems, whose MD, V Sashi Kumar, is an ex-IITian. Phoenix not only has the capacity to make the final product and obtain the certifications required but will also take care of the sales and marketing related to the SWC.

The prototypes are being tested in association with user-testing partners Spinal Foundation of India, the Association of People with Disability and CMC, Vellore, and their feedback is invaluable in the SWC’s design modification and improvement. Product testing is key, and Sujatha intends the SWC to conform not only to Indian standards but also to meet stringent international norms such as the ISO standards, CE certifications and the European traceability norms.

Career option Phoenix is a 25-year-old company with a philosophy which matches that of the R2D2 team. When Sashikumar saw the prototype in the lab, he decided to take up its development, saying all wheelchairs should be made like this. Phoenix’s expertise in affordable manufacturing is crucial to making the price point of the SWC comparable to that of a good quality manual wheelchair.

This is possible also because Wellcome Trust’s grant, aimed at creating a social impact, covers the cost of all the initial equipment required to manufacture the wheelchair.

“Such support also makes it attractive for students to join the lab to work on bio-medical projects, as they are assured of a vibrant, supportive and collaborative research environment,” says Sujatha. “I think this is very important because I want students to consider such research projects as a viable career option that also has the benefit of making a difference to society.”