High school robotics team builds custom wheelchair for 2-year-old who can’t walk

Posted at 8:01 PM, Apr 01, 2019

FARMINGTON, Minn. – Due to a genetic condition, Cillian Jackson, 2, can’t walk. But the Minnesota boy now motors around in style, thanks to some enterprising high school students.

It all started when Cillian’s physical therapist told his parents about a program called Go Baby Go, which provides modified toy cars to children with limited mobility.

They looked into it, but there wasn’t a Go Baby Go chapter near the Jackson family’s home in Farmington. And motorized wheelchairs can cost more than $1,000.

Thanks to some Farmington High School students, Cillian Jackson gets around more easily. (Courtesy Krissy Jackson)

So the parents turned to the robotics team at Farmington High School and asked if the students would be willing to take on the project.

The students accepted the challenge. Using plans and models from Go Baby Go, they got to work, modifying a Power Wheels toy car to fit little Cillian and give him more freedom in his movements.

The students wrote code to hack the toy car

Farmington High School freshman Alex Treakle, working on the car, said he was glad he could help.
(Full Credit: Jo Loza/Farmington High School Robotics Team)

Cillian’s parents provided the Power Wheels toy car. The students hacked it by gutting the car’s electronics, redesigning the joystick and customizing the seat for Cillian, robotics coach Spencer Elvebak said.

“Everything that we’ve been doing for robotics competitions … was directly relatable to this challenge,” Elvebak said. “The students did the programming, they did all the wiring, they did all the work.”

The Power Wheels toy originally had two joysticks that either moved the car forward or backward, but that didn’t work for Cillian. The students replaced the two joysticks with one and wrote their own code to make the motors respond to a single, multidirectional joystick, Elvebak said. In addition, the students printed a custom mount for the joystick to make it higher so Cillian could reach it.

The students also modified the seat. The one that came with the car was too large, so they found a different one on Amazon with a five-point harness to prevent Cillian from falling out. The students then bolted it onto the existing seat.

“In education in general we tell [students] we’re giving you the tools to apply in the future and do something with this,” Elvebak said. “Here’s a perfect example of, ‘Wow, I do have the skills to wire, code, program and approach an engineering challenge.'”

Farmington High freshman Alex Treakle worked on the main wiring of the car.

“I decided to get involved with the project because … I wanted to help someone, and it felt really good in the end,” Treakle said.

When he saw Cillian try the modified car for the first time, Treakle said, “The joy on his face really made my entire year.”

The car has brought Cillian more freedom

The robotics students were reunited with Cillian last week after presenting him with his car in December. His vehicle has been a resounding success.

Cillian’s parents typically carried him around or put him in a stroller, they said. Now Cillian has more control over where he goes.

“When he gets in his car, he will consciously stop and look at a doorknob or a light switch or all of these things he’s never had time to explore,” said Cillian’s dad, Tyler Jackson.

Cillian’s mom, Krissy Jackson, added, “It really helped his discovery and curiosity. … Having the car has really given him the agency to make choices on his own.”

The modified car allows Cillian to practice for when he eventually qualifies via insurance to get a motorized wheelchair, which he will need to attend school, his parents said.