Rory Cooper

Professor and Director of Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories

Rory Cooper, a biomedical engineer, is a man in constant motion. He propels through the hallways of his workplace in a state-of-the-art wheelchair he designed. But this isn't your typical office. Cooper is director of Pitt's Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), located in an entrepreneurial sector of Pittsburgh's Bakery Square.

As the Pitt professor rolls along, scrolling through his Blackberry, he passes a series of lab spaces, each designed to help those who are challenged by activities of daily life. There's a "smart" kitchen that uses wireless remote-controlled appliances and faucets. There are digital "cueing" devices to aid those who are in wheelchairs or have health issues such as dementia. There's a KitchenBot robotic arm that maneuvers to help with opening cupboards, accessing food, cooking, and cleanup. Other labs engage in virtual reality projects, biomechanics, and brain-machine interfaces.

At HERL—a partnership with the VA Pittsburgh Health Care System, UPMC Health Care Systems, and Pitt’s Schools of Health Science and School of Medicine—Cooper leads a team of nearly 100 Pitt faculty, students, and staff as they blend clinical studies, software innovation, engineering, occupational therapy, prosthetics development, and counseling, to create or improve assistive technologies for people with disabilities.

Case in point: a robotic arm called PerMMA or Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance. Cooper’s invention is a finally tuned robot, with arms that can reach and hands that can grasp. It allows those dependent on wheelchairs to live more independently. Popular Science magazine, in 2010, named it one of the world’s 10 most advanced human-assist bots. It’s the kind of breakthrough HERL is known for, and Cooper is credited on 25 of 30 patents to advance wheelchair and other assistive technologies.

Pitt’s Innovation Institute helps HERL and others University-wide to develop new technology and deliver it to the world. Remarkably, Pitt faculty members and students have acquired 742 patents, spanning two decades, for new discoveries, including 66 patents during the past year alone.

The institute cultivates a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship on campus and in the Pittsburgh region, while facilitating the patenting and licensing of inventions and new technologies. Through its Pitt Ventures Gear Program, it also provides entrepreneurship education, mentoring, and early-stage funding to enable researchers to translate their discoveries into products and services that can succeed in the marketplace.

Cooper—the FISA and Paralyzed Veterans of America Chair and Distinguished Professor at Pitt—is now working on what he calls the “Gen3” version of PerMAA. It is an advanced model with voice control and new high-tech features. He is also perfecting the MEBot, a specialized wheelchair that climbs curbs and navigates tricky surfaces such as ice and steeply angled walkways.

In Cooper’s office, dozens of community and innovation honors decorate his walls. Yet, he does not characterize himself as anyone special. Rather, he says, “I consider myself mission oriented. It’s my calling in life to innovate, research, and use my talents to help others with disabilities.”