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Science competition gave a boost to welfare innovation

No fewer than eight completed innovation concepts are ready and waiting for the East Jutland health and care sector following Aarhus University’s annual science competition for engineers.

2014.08.15 | Kim Harel

The Aarhus City Council, the Central Denmark Region and Aarhus University Hospital borrowed Aarhus University’s combined engineering research squad for two days. The result was a number of new product ideas for improving current rehabilitation efforts. Pictured here are three of the researchers in the winning group. They generated the idea of a wheelchair with a single joystick that changes function when it is docked in different parts of the home. From left they are PhD student Simon Lind Kappel, Associate Professor Lars Ottosen and PhD student and Assistant Professor Annette Beedholm Rasmussen.

What happens when you borrow seventy researchers for two days and ask them to invent new products to improve welfare services? How far can you actually go when you put talented people together and get them to use their highly specialised knowledge and all their powers?

This was the question asked by the Aarhus City Council, the Central Denmark Region and Aarhus University Hospital on Monday and Tuesday this week, when they had an opportunity to draw on the combined engineering research squad at Aarhus University.

Photos from Engineering PHD CHALLENGE 2014

Engineers in a united front for better rehabilitation
The theme of the competition was the rehabilitation of three citizen groups – children following orthopaedic surgery, brain-damaged patients and elderly people with physical difficulties. After rolling up their sleeves for forty-eight hours, the researchers delivered the results of their efforts on Tuesday and the outcome was amazing, according to Professor Jørgen Feldbæk Nielsen, leader of the Research Unit at the Hammel Neurorehabilitation and Research Centre (HNRC) and one of the judges in the science competition.

“I’m familiar with lots of different types of innovation processes in the health sector, but I have to say that the intensive idea development we’ve seen during the last two days has been impressive. Engineers are good at thinking in terms of solutions, and something really special happens when you put them together in a cross-disciplinary forum. We’ve now got eight highly qualified proposals for how we can by and large improve our different rehabilitation efforts, and we’ll now look at how to proceed with these ideas,” he says.

The participating researchers also showed a trace of amazement about their own achievements.

“To start with I was inclined to wonder what contribution I could make in this subject. I carry out research into reinforced concrete, so I was really keen to see how things would turn out. However, I was put together with specialists in electronics, chemical technology and software development, and something began to happen with our joint idea development,” says Assistant Professor and PhD student at the Department of Engineering, Annette Beedholm Rasmussen.

Docking system for wheelchairs ran away with the victory
A vest with functions that resemble an airbag and can protect walking-impaired elderly people if they fall. A computer game that reacts to the player’s weight distribution and can thereby train a healthy sitting position in children. An intelligent light and sound system for the home that can help brain-damaged patients with their short-term memory, so they remember the most basic everyday activities such as going to the toilet. These are some of the ideas that saw the light of day in connection with the competition.

Common to them all is that they are based on existing technology considered in new contexts, and this makes them both relevant and financially viable.

This also applies to the winning idea, which is an intelligent docking solution for wheelchairs.

“The idea is to build an electric wheelchair for children with cerebral palsy affecting their arms and legs. The majority of these children have normal intelligence, but are confined to a wheelchair due to their physical handicap. They’re typically dependent on care round the clock, but have a burning desire to be more independent in everyday life,” says Simon Lind Kappel, a PhD student at the Department of Engineering, Aarhus University.

The researchers’ proposals consist of two elements. The first is a plate on the floor that charges the wheelchair via electrical contact and minimises the size of the wheelchair’s battery. The other is a wireless communication network that provides the wheelchair user with an opportunity to dock with just a single touch of a button.

In principle, the system acts in the same way as a robot vacuum cleaner, but what is particularly smart about the docking system is that the wheelchair’s joystick can control different functions at each docking station.

A dock in the kitchen, for example, could provide the wheelchair user with an opportunity to control food, fluid and medicine dispensers. Another dock in the bedroom could perhaps make it possible to read digital books as well as charging the wheelchair during the night. In the living room, it would be possible to use the joystick to control a computer, TV and sound system, while yet a fourth location could make it possible to set up a training station. Via a little computer game, the user could be guided through the training programme for muscles in the arms and legs that is necessary for cerebral palsy patients. There are no limits to the number of uses.

“Offhand, I’d say it would be possible to add the docking solution to an existing electric wheelchair, but it would require quite a bit of work to develop software and hardware for this purpose. It would largely be possible to build the individual docking stations on existing equipment, which would just need the addition of new functions,” says Simon Lind Kappel.

The researchers estimate that the docking system described here could save up to one carer per day.


Simon Lind Kappel, ph.d.-studerende, Aarhus Universitet:slk@eng.au.dk; 2118 6398

Jørgen Feldbæk Nielsen, professor og leder af forskningsenheden på Hammel Neurocenter: jfn@clin.au.dk 



The ENGINEERING PHD CHALLENGE is an annual event at which all PhD students and supervisors in the field of engineering get together at a Danish location to come up with suggestions for technological solutions to a relevant societal problem.

Aarhus University (Department of Engineering and Faculty of Health), the Hammel Neurorehabiliation and Research Centre, the Aarhus City Council (Vikærgården Health and Care Hotel) and Aarhus University Hospital (Department of Paediatric Orthopaedic Surgery) are jointly responsible for the specific formulation of this year’s research challenge.



Department of Engineering