Sylvie Wurmser and Ian Day machine parts for REACH, the omnidirectional wheelchair created by Montclair Robotics. COURTESY MONTCLAIR ROBOTICS

For Montclair Local

The 2020-21 school year saw challenges for Montclair Robotics — with members having limited access to their workshop at Montclair High School, and competitions moved to a virtual format.

But the team kept working, kept creating.

This spring, members of the 50-plus-student team designed and built an omnidirectional wheelchair — capable of moving side to side, as well as back and forth — for a wounded veteran.

The project — known as REACH, for Revolutionized Electronic Arm Chair for Healthcare — was conducted in consultation with the Wounded Warrior Project, Picatinny Arsenal and the Department of Defense. 

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The project qualified for the FIRST Robotics Competition’s Innovation Challenge — which asked teams to identify a real-world problem, design a solution, build a business model and deliver a pitch. Students were asked to come up with a project involving adaptive technology that helps people with physical or mental health.

The Montclair team typically takes part in FRC’s usual annual contest, where participants build robots capable of competing in a game. This year, FRC created three new contests, designed to give participants a chance to engage from home, as many schools were partially or completely remote during the pandemic.

And for team members who’ve taken part over the last few years, REACH draws on some familiar technology.

“Most wheelchairs can just move backward and forward, or you have to fiddle with the wheels, Serena Lee, one of the student leaders on the team, said. Montclair Local additionally spoke with some of the team’s several other leaders: Sylvie Wurmser, Elliot Albright and Josh Stout. “REACH uses a drivetrain similar to our [2019] robot, which allows the specially designed wheels to move in multiple directions,” she said.

That means easier mobility through tight spaces, such as some in the veteran’s own home, Albright said.

The team did its programming in the language Python, on the Raspberry Pi platform, Albright said. The wheelchair is controlled with a joystick.

In April, members of Montclair Robotics — which competes as FRC Team 555 — learned they’d qualified as semi-finalists for the Innovation Challenge, based on their design and presentation for the project. Unfortunately, Lee said, the team didn’t advance beyond that point this year. 

Lee said team members became aware of the veteran’s need with the help of Shahram Dabiri, “one of our mentors and biggest supporters.” Dabiri is the STEM technology manager for the U.S. Army DEVCOM Armaments Center. The team also had mentorship from inventor and assistive technology researcher Rory Cooper, who is the assistant vice chancellor for research for health studies and STEM collaboration at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dabiri had suggested the Wounded Warrior Project could connect the team with a few veterans, and members could talk to them about innovations that might improve their daily lives. Team members spoke with three veterans, including the one who’ll receive REACH.

“I know he’s tried different wheelchairs to help him, but they don’t work great in his home. There’s not a lot of space in his apartment,” Lee said.

In the last few weeks, the project has been undergoing some final code work. The wheelchair will be presented to the veteran on July 4.

The team worked on a compressed schedule, because Montclair High School students didn’t begin returning to their building for a hybrid learning schedule until late in the year — and the team didn’t have access to its workshop until June. In-person training that normally happens in the fall wasn’t possible. Most of the planning and design was done on Zoom, a challenge given the hands-on nature of robotics work, members said.

The team members first got instructions from FIRST organizers for the Innovation Challenge in January, and submitted a design in March, they said. The delayed access to the workshop meant the six to eight weeks usually used to build a robot would become just four for the wheelchair.

Still, even in that limited time, the newest members of Montclair Robotics still got hands-on experience with tools such as lathes, drills and impact drivers.

Twenty new students joined this year, and took on different roles including building, coding and computer-aided design. The team received financial support from the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, which allowed it to purchase soldering kits for the new team members to work with, Wurmser said.

“It’s amazing how much [the new students] were able to learn,” she said. 

Once the wheelchair is completed, the team will also put together a detailed report on the wheelchair’s design, Stout said. 

“The team has taken it to another level,” said Angela Yanette, who coaches the team along with fellow Montclair schools faculty member Michael Barouch.

The next step for Montclair Robotics is to do some fundraising and outreach to local businesses and sponsors, since COVID-19 interrupted most of the usual fundraising activities. 

“It’s different from what we normally do, but it’s been really gratifying,” Lee said of the project.