RE2 is moving its robotic ingenuity into helping people with disabilities

Among the occasional visitors to Jorgen Pedersen’s Lawrenceville business, one group stands out: the Allegheny County bomb squad.

“It freaks out the neighbors,” Mr. Pedersen acknowledged with a slight smile.

Mr. Pedersen is president and CEO of RE2, which stands for Robotics Engineering Excellence ( Since its inception more than 10 years ago, RE2 has been developing and improving mobile robots used for dismantling explosive devices in far-off wars or safely clearing a meth lab’s cache of weapons here at home.

Now, along with University of Pittsburgh and Veterans Administration researcher Rory Cooper, RE2 is moving its robotic ingenuity into helping people with disabilities better navigate the logistics of a world not designed to accommodate them.

“It’s something that’s needed, that’s for sure,” said Mr. Pedersen in a recent interview.

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded RE2 a $75,000 Phase I, Small Business Innovation Research grant to develop what the company calls a Patient Assist Robotic Arm.

Still in the development stage, PARA is a mobile robotic arm that attaches to a power wheelchair and uses a sling to help people transfer from a wheelchair to a car, toilet or a couch.

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“If you were sitting in your office chair all day, even in the best chair they would purchase, it’s still going to get uncomfortable after awhile,” said Mr. Cooper, who is director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, a joint program of Pitt and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The goal, he said, is to help people who use a wheelchair to transfer to other seating “without large and bulky equipment, pretty much anywhere anybody wants to go.”

Accomplishing that simple goal, however, takes some doing.

Robotic arms historically have been capable of lifting little more than five pounds. RE2 needs to build one that can lift up to 250 pounds and can attach to a standard power wheelchair. (The heft of a power chair is needed as a counterweight, Mr. Cooper noted.)

“This is a fairly complicated robotic device to come to market,” he said.

The implications are tremendous to someone who uses a wheelchair to get around.

Currently, people who use a wheelchair often have trouble transferring out of it unless the destination is close to the same height and only a few inches away.

“As nice as your home may be, you don’t want to spend all of your time there,” said Mr. Cooper, who has used a wheelchair since 1980 when he was struck by a truck while bicycling in Germany but who can transfer from his wheelchair independently. “Without technology, your world gets smaller and smaller.”

Pitt owns the patent for the Patient Assist Robotic Arm and has licensed RE2, which has 35 employees, to market it. Mr. Cooper said the device will cost $10,000 to $15,000, which they hope insurers will cover. They anticipate the robotic arm could be useful to “at least” 50,000 to 100,000 people domestically who use power wheelchairs.

Mr. Pedersen said they will apply for Phase II funding next summer but, with all the needed approvals, a completed prototype may be three years away. He anticipates the VA will be the first market, then Medicare before targeting the private insurance sector.

Meanwhile, RE2 will continue to get visits from the bomb squad as they work to develop bomb-defusing robots that are stronger, more dexterous and more accurate.

In 2014, for the first time, the privately held RE2 took in $2.2 million in Series A venture capital investment, Mr. Pedersen said, which should make it capable of shipping thousands of robot arms instead of hundreds.

“What drives us is making a difference in the world, whether it’s improving someone’s life or saving someone’s life,” he said.