Students Invent ‘Freedom Robot’ For People with Paralysis

May 2, 2024

Editor’s Note: Two Pennsylvania research students who invented a robot capable of performing everyday tasks for people with disabilities, went to live with the robot’s test subjects in California. During their 7-day visit, the students learned their invention was not only successful, but a source of hope.

Carnegie Mellon University students Akhil Padmanabha and Janavi Gupta traveled to the Bay Area home of Henry and Jane Evans this past August.

Henry, who has quadriplegia, would spend the week putting their Head-Worn Assistive Teleoperation (HAT)—an experimental interface to control a mobile robot—to the test.

HAT requires fewer fine motor skills than other interfaces to help people with some form of paralysis control a mobile robot and manipulator. It allows users to control a mobile robot via head motion and speech recognition and features a hands-free microphone and head-worn sensor.

Henry, who lost the ability to move his limbs and talk after a brain-stem stroke two decades ago, enjoyed using HAT to control the robot by moving his head — and in some situations –preferred HAT to the computer screen he normally uses.

“We were excited to see it work well in the real world,” said Padmanabha, a Ph.D. student in robotics who leads the HAT research team. “Henry became increasingly proficient in using HAT over the week and gave us lots of valuable feedback.”

During the home trial, the researchers had Henry perform predefined tasks, such as fetching a drink, feeding himself and scratching an itch. Henry manipulated the robot named “Stretch”, with a pincer-like gripper on a single arm using HAT to control it.

Daily, Henry performed the blanket+tissue+trash task, which involved moving a blanket off his body, grabbing a tissue and wiping his face with it, and then throwing the tissue away. As the week progressed, Henry could do it faster and faster and with fewer errors.

Henry said he preferred using HAT with a robot for certain tasks rather than depending on a caregiver.

“Definitely scratching itches,” he said. “I would be happy to have it stand next to me all day, ready to do that or hold a towel to my mouth. Also, feeding me soft foods, operating the blinds and doing odd jobs around the room. “Stretch” is better than anything I have tried for grasping .”

Henry says his incentive for participating in research is simple. “Without technology, I would spend each day staring at the ceiling waiting to die,” he said. “To be able to manipulate my environment again according to my will is motivation enough.”

Though “Stretch” is commercially available, it is still primarily used by researchers, and CMU has 10–15 of them. It’s a simple robot with limited capabilities, but Padmanabha said its approximate $25,000 price tag inspires hope for expanded use of mobile robots.

“We’re getting to the price point where we think robots could be in the home in the near future,” he said.

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