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Feature:
Robotic Innovations

Robots for better health and quality of life.

As part of the National Robotics Initiative, multiple federal agencies are supporting the development of a new generation of robots that work cooperatively with people. This year, the National Institutes of Health funded three innovative robots. Two are to improve the health and quality of life for people with disabilities. The third is a "social companion" to inspire curiosity, determination, and hard work in children.

Roderic I. Pettigrew, PhD, MD, Director, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, NIH
Photo Courtesy of NIBIB

"Robots are rapidly being incorporated into all aspects of our lives, from GPS in cars, to speech recognition on smart phones," observes Roderic I. Pettigrew, PhD, MD, Director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), the lead institute for the National Robotics Initiative at the NIH.

"We want to encourage leaders in the field of robotics to apply their ingenuity to improve health care. Such innovations have the potential to help facilitate healthy independent living."

Smart-walker "surrounds a person with confidence"

Power-assisted walker mode has 4 legs and 2 handles to assist with walking

Photo Courtesy of: Xiangrong Shen, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

As we age, it's harder to walk without assistance. Physical activity and quality of life decrease. To continue living at home, we often require costly modifications such as ramps or wheelchair lifts.

University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa mechanical engineer Xiangrong Shen is developing a four-legged robot to help the elderly remain active and independent—without relying on caregivers or expensive home renovations.

Says Shen, "We want to help people in their daily lives in their own homes. Our robot surrounds a person with confidence."

"If we're ever going to see robots like Star Wars, it's going to happen in a lab like this."
—Cynthia Breazeal, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The new robot has two modes: power-assisted walker and smart "mule." In the first, you select the level of power to maintain a stable, steady pace. As the smart mule, the robot walks beside you while carrying "saddlebags" of groceries, for example. It uses a 3-D computer vision-based system to detect your motion and surroundings. It easily bypasses obstacles that wheelchairs cannot.

This project is funded jointly by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Institute of Nursing Research, and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

A social-robot "buddy" for kids

A preschooler interacts with a social-robot companion.
Photo Courtesy of: Personal Robots Group, MIT Media Lab

Thanks to Star Wars, R2D2 and C3PO captivated Cynthia Breazeal's imagination as a child. She grew up to pioneer human-robot interactions, develop Jibo, the world's first family "companion" robot, and found and direct the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Personal Robots Group.

She and her team are working on an autonomous, long-term social robotic companion for children—an interactive "buddy"—to promote and assess a child's curiosity and intellectual growth. Not only do dedication and hard work improve one's basic abilities, Breazeal believes they also influence a child's mental health, academic achievement, and general well-being. The researchers plan to evaluate the new "buddy's" influence in a six month study in which children learn and play while interacting with the robot companion.

This project is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"Seeing-eye" glove for the visually impaired

Hand with seeing-eye glove points at door to illustrate door handle open function

Photo courtesy of: Cang Ye, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Cang Ye is passionate about enlarging the world for the blind and visually impaired. "In the age of computers, we're still using primitive devices—the white cane—to navigate our surroundings," he says.

At his University of Arkansas laboratory, Ye and his systems engineering colleagues are creating a kind of "seeing eye" glove that combines a small, 3-D camera and computerized sensors to help people detect obstacles and grasp things. A blind person could use it to walk around a chair, for instance, or open a door handle.

"It's a big challenge," Ye says. "The glove needs to be both small and powerful."

This project is funded by the National Eye Institute.

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Spring 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 1 Page 8-10