Friends with SMA Inspire Scouts to Create Wheelchair Device

Tech-savvy Girl Scouts designed and built an award-winning wheelchair backup camera for friends with SMA

Quinn Schnitzlein, with the GENIUS girls and staff from Georgia Tech’s Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, on the day the backup camera (lower right) was installed on his power chair.
Article Highlights:
  • Six Girl Scouts from the Atlanta, Ga., area who belong to a group called GENIUS (Girls Exploring New Ideas Using Science) designed and built a wheelchair backup camera for Quinn Schnitzlein, a 10-year-old boy with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).
  • The backup camera won first place in the FIRST LEGO League Georgia Championship, as well as the Make a Difference award in the FIRST robotics 2011 World Festival in St. Louis, Mo.
  • The backup camera system — which they are adapting for another friend with SMA who is a fellow Scout — needs to be customized for each user’s abilities. Interested do-it-yourselfers can find basic information about materials and design on the GENIUS website.
by Miriam Davidson on May 25, 2011 - 12:18pm

Ten-year-old Quinn Schnitzlein has been using a power chair since he was 3, so he’s a pretty good driver. But the boy from Marietta, Ga., who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), often bumped into things when he backed up.

One day last year, Quinn and some friends were at a fast-food restaurant. “We were at different tables,” Quinn says, “and when I’d try to turn around to talk to them, I kept hitting things.”

Quinn’s friends, some of whom belong to a small group of local Girl Scouts called GENIUS (Girls Exploring New Ideas Using Science), got an idea. Why not make a backup camera for Quinn?

The GENIUS girls had been looking for a project to enter in the FIRST LEGO League Challenge, an international robotics competition for children ages 9 to 14. Each challenge has a theme, and the theme for 2010 was Body Forward, or biomedical engineering.

The backup camera — which the girls named the Body Backward — was a winner. Not only did Quinn love it, but the GENIUS team won first place in the FIRST LEGO League Georgia Championship, the only all-girl team ever to win that statewide contest.

The GENIUS girls then went on to compete against 82 teams from 29 countries in the FIRST Robotics 2011 World Festival in St. Louis, Mo. At that event, their project won the Make a Difference Judges’ Award.

Help from Georgia Tech

The six GENIUS began their project by visiting the Healthcare Robotics Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, directed by Charles C. Kemp, Ph.D.

“We saw some of their robots that can help bathe patients, and robots that can go around a room and retrieve a pill bottle,” said GENIUS coach (and mother of one of the girls) Lydia Kedzierski. “It inspired us to use technology to help Quinn.”

Quinn Schnitzlein testing his new camera
Quinn tests his new backup camera and monitor.

With mentoring from experts at Georgia Tech's Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, the girls built a prototype of the camera on a manual wheelchair. In addition to a camera and a monitor, the prototype had sensors that could tell if the chair got too close to something. It would announce in an electronic voice, “Object detected. Watch out!”

Quinn tested the prototype and found he liked the 130-degree rear view that he got from the monitor, but not the sensors, because they couldn’t tell him what was behind him. The GENIUS girls ended up installing the system on his power chair without sensors.

“I’ve used it a lot, and it’s really helped me,” reports Quinn. The system recently was uninstalled after he got a new seat for his wheelchair, but he’s looking forward to having it up and running again.

Another one in the works

At the same time, the GENIUS girls are working on developing a more complex backup camera system for another friend with SMA (and a fellow Girl Scout), 14-year-old Chessa Birrell of Acworth, Ga.

Unlike Quinn, who can move his arms and push buttons, Chessa has limited use of her arms and hands, and will need to utilize a special switch to activate her backup camera.

“We’ve learned that the way the system was mounted on Quinn’s chair won’t work on Chessa’s,” Lydia Kedzierski said. The GENIUS girls have been learning about assistive technologies for people with limited use of their hands as they gather the materials for Chessa’s camera, which they plan to install in the next few weeks.

The girls received donations and discounts to obtain most of the materials needed for both backup camera systems. Other components were purchased with money they raised for the project. The estimated cost for the camera and monitor was about $120.

The project has been tremendously beneficial, Kedzierski said, not only for Quinn and Chessa, but for the GENIUS girls as well. They are thrilled and proud to have created something that makes life easier for people with disabilities.

“The girls want to share what they’ve learned,” Kedzierski said, in hopes that others will be able to use their designs to build more customized backup cameras.

“They want to get the word out about this technology.”

To learn more about how the Body Backward camera was designed and built, visit the GENIUS website.  The site contains a list of materials and a video of the camera being installed on Quinn's power chair. 

Editor's Note: The backup camera installation for Chessa Birrell took place at the CATEA lab at Georgia Tech June 3. Check out some photos.

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