College of Engineering News Room

Engineering Solutions for America’s Heroes

by Russell Nay

A new partnership between the USF Center for Assistive, Rehabilitation and Robotics Technologies and nonprofit Quality of Life Plus is helping USF engineering students make a difference in the lives of local veterans.

U.S. Army veteran Omar Duran is a Tampa local, but racing in handcycle competitions to secure a spot on the U.S. Paralympics Cycling team for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games takes him across the country and around the world.

“Cycling wise, I’ve been to pretty much every state in the U.S., including Hawaii,” Duran said. “(Internationally), I’ve been to Columbia, Belgium and Australia.”

Omar Duran

Duran will compete in handcycling competitions in Houston, Miami and during the Boston Marathon this year to increase his athlete rank and earn points toward securing a spot on the U.S. Paralympics Cycling team for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

One of Duran’s biggest challenges in his competitions takes place both off the track and before his races even start. Traveling by plane, Duran said that he’s never arrived to an event overseas with an undamaged handcycle, which is worth around $20,000.

Whether it’s a bent wheel or a broken part — and regardless of how much bubble wrap and cellophane his handcycle is wrapped in — he’s always had to worry about what broke on his bike during the flight.

To help Duran focus more on future races and less on repairs, five mechanical engineering students teamed up as part of their capstone class project to design and build a handcycle case.

“We thought it was an interesting project and an opportunity to help a veteran and an amazing handcycling athlete,” said USF mechanical engineering alum Paola Rossi. “We liked the idea of building something that was actually needed and would be used in real life.”

The project began with Duran meeting the student team at USF and pitching them the idea of what he needed from a case for his handcycle. Then, the students brainstormed different case designs and narrowed their final product down throughout the semester based on criteria like airline cargo shock ratings, whether or not the handcycle needed to be disassembled to fit in the case, if the case needed to fit in a car and Duran’s feedback.

Mechanical Engineering Students

Building a case capable of protecting the handcycle of U.S. Army veteran and Quality of Life Plus “Challenger” Omar Duran (center) from travel damage was the focus of one mechanical engineering senior capstone class team, consisting of Bryan Hartman (left), Jose Arias (second from left), Ruven Tapia-Vargas (third from right), Paola Rossi (second from right) and John Russell (right). (Photos provided by Paola Rossi.)

“I told them that I just needed something that can be beat up that I can replace parts on and keep going,” he said. “They did very well, and I’m very satisfied with it.”

Rossi said that even though the case looks like a simple box, the process of deciding on a final design that would keep Duran’s handcycle undamaged without being too unwieldy was rather challenging.

Determining its strength required Rossi to run computer simulations on virtual copies of the case, and the team had to pay close attention to the materials they used to balance weight and durability. After multiple redesigns, the end product featured an aluminum frame with corrugated multiwall polycarbonate braces and extra foam where the most sensitive parts of the handcycle rested. The case also has storage for its removable wheels, allowing it to be more easily stowed in a car.


The mechanical engineering student team went through several redesigns during the semester before creating a handcycle case for Duran that met all the project requirements and the course budget.

Rossi said the project made for a unique capstone course experience because she was able to see the impact of her team’s work.

“Sometimes students might see capstones as just another class, but once I started realizing that this was actually going to be used and was useful for Duran, it made me want to do my best and give my best,” she said.

Duran discovered the Quality of Life Plus program during his time at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was receiving physical rehabilitation treatments for injuries he sustained in July of 2011. While serving overseas, an explosion caused Duran to fall over a cliffside, resulting in broken bones, a spinal cord injury and life-long illnesses caused by his injuries.

Quality of Life Plus Chief Operating Officer Dr. Barbara Springer met Duran at the medical center after his admission. After a partnership between the USF Center for Assistive, Rehabilitation and Robotics Technologies and Quality of Life Plus began forming in 2019, Springer reached out to ask if Duran was willing to be one of the program’s “Challengers”— the veterans and first responders the nonprofit serves.

“We initially started with the project for Omar in mechanical engineering (at USF),” Springer said. “We hope to also partner with the new medical engineering department, which is jointly sponsored and governed by the colleges of engineering and medicine. It’s a great marriage of talent, and we hope to provide Quality of Life Plus Challenges for their two-semester senior projects.”

A Quality of Life Plus staff member spoke to USF College of Engineering director of strategic research projects Gus Zader, who recommended that Quality of Life Plus Founder Jon Monett take a tour of CARRT facilities and meet the center’s students and faculty. Duran is the first QL+ Challenger to work with USF students, and projects typically focus on biomedical engineering and robotics. Rossi was a CARRT research assistant for a year and a half as an undergrad, working on projects to improve the lives of those with reduced functional capabilities.

“We pitch projects, and the students get to pick which projects they want to work on, and with some of our university partners, students are assigned to work on our projects,” said Quality of Life Plus Chief Communications Officer Amber Humphrey. “But generally speaking, almost all of our students choose our projects because they want to build something that helps people, and that’s exactly the type of students we’re looking for.”