The Human Engineering and Research Laboratory (HERL)


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is currently undergoing one of the largest economic recoveries in the nation. Immediately following the collapse of the steel industry around the 1980’s the city was hemorrhaging unemployment with tens of thousands of individuals leaving annually. Flash forward three decades later, and the story of Pittsburgh is completely different; The city and surrounding areas are vibrant with culture, science, and technology. Pittsburgh has gradually transformed into the city of Ed’s and Med’s, known for its renowned universities such as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, as well as its largest hospital and employer, UPMC. Companies such as Google have even begun branching into the city, hoping to take advantage of the low costs of living and readily available college graduates to employ.

The Human Engineering Research Lab, a branch of the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Science and Technology department, is one such institution benefiting largely from the tech boom that has been occurring in Pittsburgh. Since many are not aware of HERL’s presence and the remarkable work they do every day, I decided to interview Veteran and employee, Josh Marino, to find out more. Marino was also generous enough to provide me a personal tour around their entire facility located in Bakery Square in East Liberty. What I saw was nothing short of astounding.

HERL was founded by Dr. Rory Cooper, a wounded veteran himself, in the mid 90’s with the goal of “increasing the mobility of people with disabilities and improving their independence.” They are a branch of the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Science and Technology Department and use students from the University in what is described by Marino as a “give and take relationship; We have a lot of the students come in and get a hands-on experience working on a real-world project where results are expected so that HERL is able to move forward.” Currently, Marino estimates that the organization has around 15 ongoing projects that range from bioinformatics to more tangible projects like engineering. The price-tag on such projects can range anywhere “from fifty-thousand dollars to several million dollars, but on average, are somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred thousand dollars.”

However, the organization does not directly sell any of their products in the market. Instead, they sell their finished projects to private companies such as “Virtual Seating Coach app” which is now “being fielded by Permobiland” or give their designs directly to the Veterans Affairs Agency or another governmental department. In terms of receiving funding, Marino remarks that “it all depends on what the project is.” The organization does receive “a good amount of funding through the Veterans Administration and the University of Pittsburgh” but they have also “secured grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.” Marino adds that “We are not out to get people’s money, but rather help people help themselves.”

Every aspect of HERL is meticulously planned, down to their floors which are laid out in a pattern that alerts partially blind individuals of upcoming turns in the hallway. They are also resistant to static electricity, which makes it significantly more comfortable for individuals in wheelchairs to wheel down the hallways.

The fancy floors were well worth the investment, as much of what I saw during my visit were wheelchairs. They weren’t the type of chairs that the elderly use in nursing homes. Rather, HERL created machines that rival certain vehicles in terms of cost and technological capabilities.

One of the most interesting wheelchairs I had the opportunity to witness a demo of is the PneuChair, which is entirely powered by air stored in tanks conveniently stowed below the seat. Sadly, I was not permitted the opportunity to try out the prototype, as it would be rather expensive to replace. Marino explained to me that the idea sprung from a private funder who has a daughter that “likes to go swimming” but cannot because she is confined to her electric wheelchair. He explained that the father “wanted to see if it were possible for anyone to come up with an idea for a wheelchair that does not run on any electricity and does not require batteries.” Besides this “scooter prototype” being completely waterproof, the air tanks can fill up in “as little as 5 seconds versus, in some instances, a 45-hour charge for a battery-powered chair.” However, it “has no brake and it has no clutch yet” so the chain fell off when Josh stopped operating it.

Marino operating the Pneu chair

Marino informed me, though, that they are “at a point where the girl should be able to use the wheelchair in the next few years.” HERL has even recently released certain models to Morgan’s Wonderland, a waterpark in San Antonio Texas, on a trial basis. He touched on the idea that once marketed and the cost is brought down, this technology could even be “used in airports or grocery stores” where it is more efficient to transport injured, handicap, and the elderly around. As a side note, the chair goes twice as fast as your everyday Hoveround in grocery stores, which is an added bonus.

Among this are other ongoing projects such as the JACO arm, designed by KINOVA which, as the name suggests, is an arm that attaches to a wheelchair and is controlled by a mounted tablet or a joystick. It’s remarkably useful for individuals confined to their wheelchairs who have also lost the ability to use one or both of their arms. Marino stresses that HERL’s mission is not just about “improving hardware” but “improving people’s abilities.” In the context of the JACO arm, this includes having people come in to improve their “fine motor function. Gross motor function only allows individuals to grasp something loosely whereas fine motor function is necessary to carry out more intricate actions such as unlocking your door with a key.” HERL has been finetuning the JACO arm so that it can more readily engage in actions requiring the use of fine motor function, a big part of our every day lives.

Marino gives a demo of the JACO arm

Many people fail to recognize the daily struggles that people with disabilities face on a day to day basis, whether that be a curb without any ramp, having to get in and out of a wheelchair without any assistance, or dealing with the fatigue that comes from operating a manual wheelchair. We often overlook how handicap individuals’ lifestyles are limited by their mobility, not to mention the psychological effects of their impairments. These challenges that we don’t have to overcome lead us to take our independence for granted. But thanks to the dedication and innovation of the HERL employees and Pitt students, people’s lives are improving every day.

**Special thanks to Josh Marino for the in depth tour of the entire facility. The enthusiasm you display for your job is unparalleled and an inspiration.**