The Robots Are Coming!

Will one be helping out in your home?2

Robots -long the topic of science fiction—have transformed many heavy industries. Most automobiles today are built with the assistance of robots. Now they are coming into people’s homes in ways most of us would not have thought possible.

The popular movie portrayal of robots as humanoid machines walking around in our homes and communities is not likely to become a reality any time soon, although there are some pretty cool humanoid robot toys. However, home robots may take on other forms.

Robots can be broadly thought of as intelligent machines that have the ability to sense and interact with their environments. The types of robots likely to be in homes in the near future to assist people with disabilities are special-purpose machines, mobile robots, assistive robots, and robotic manipulators. It is likely that some years into the future people with disabilities will have some or all these types of robots in their homes to promote independent living and greater community participation.

Robots have heretofore typically been designed to alleviate the burdens associated with heavy industries, to work in hazardous (e.g., the surface of a volcano or inside a nuclear power plant) or remote environments (e.g., the surface of Mars), and for entertainment (e.g., the Terminator). Robotics in these domains are designed to work autonomously and at a distance from humans.

Assistive robots for use in the home and community must necessarily work in close proximity to people and, in some cases, be in close contact with them. For individuals with disabilities, robots may in the future assist with bathing, shaving, brushing teeth, eating, preparing meals, shopping, and other intimate activities of daily living. Those that work in cooperation with humans are called “symbiotic robots.” People may be surprised to learn that these have been gradually moving into our homes, almost without our giving them any thought.

The Smart Way

“Smart appliances” may be considered as robots, and the trend has been toward smarter ones. Such devices as dishwashers, home energy management systems, and even refrigerators may be considered home robots, especially as manufacturers build in the capability of appliances to communicate with each other and a home network system.

It is becoming more common to install smart appliances, if only to conserve energy and to increase safety. For example, a “smart” stove can be monitored using a “smart” phone (e.g., iPhone or Android) and turned on/off remotely. This feature can, for example, help a person with a mild cognitive impairment (e.g., possibly from a traumatic brain injury, or TBI) remain at home by having appliances that may cause harm being remotely monitored and controlled. Robotic vacuum cleaners and mops are available in stores (e.g., the Rumba from iRobot) and are frequently used by people with disabilities.

Some researchers and large companies are working toward converting the entire home into a robot. These smart homes have energy monitoring systems that adjust to residents’ location and preferences (e.g., heating, lighting), and security and monitoring systems to provide constant access to and control of appliances. Scientists are also investigating ways in which “smart” homes can help people with disabilities live longer, healthier, and more independently in their homes.

The “cognitive kitchen” is a research project that is investigating how to help people prepare meals. It provides a series of cues to guide people as they need them. These may be computer-generated verbal cues, changes in lighting—such as lighting up a drawer handle—or using suspended particle display glass to change the cabinet glass from milky to clear, or even projecting an image of the item onto the cabinet. This type of research has a number of challenges, as it requires in-depth understanding of people, their abilities, their preferences, and the environment. Also, to work best for the robotic system and the person, some structure must be imposed.

Similarly, people are also exploring how home robotics technology can help promote healing and participation. Building upon a foundation initiated by Lavinia Pasquina and Jeff Guiggio of Catholic University, Paul F. Pasquina of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Rory Cooper and Dan Ding of the University of Pittsburgh, Clark Realty, Ideo, the Michael Graves Group, and others are designing model smart homes for wounded warriors and their families who are continuing on active duty. These homes, which will be completed later this year, will incorporate principles of universal design in architecture, environmental and home security technology, and a backbone to support the home as an intelligent system. The first homes are being built at Fort Belvoir, Va., to accommodate the range of abilities wounded warriors have as a result of their injuries.

The Butler Did It!

People are working on robots that will operate in a person’s home and community environment, something like a combination of a butler and a caregiver extender. This represents a tremendous challenge, as the first directive of any robot is to do no harm. Working in the home environment and on common household tasks necessitates working closely with people, and even touching them.

Japan has one of the largest populations of older adults and is facing a healthcare and caregiver crisis, and has, therefore, been investing considerably in humanoid and other robotic systems to work in homes and healthcare settings. Many people are working on robotics butlers, and the Asimo from Honda is probably the most well-known, as it is a humanoid robot with some remarkable movement abilities (e.g., walking, climbing stairs).

Intel Corporation and the National Science Foundation Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center (NSF QoLT ERC) have built the Home Environment Robotic Butler (HERB) that is based upon a Segway base and incorporates two Barrett Arms as manipulators. The biggest breakthroughs with HERB are in software to understand the human home environment and in working collaboratively with people. HERB can learn to pick up and move objects in human ways, a difficult problem for robots. For example, people intuitively understand that if something is blocking the items they wish to grasp, they simply move the obstructing objects to the side. This is not something robots have traditionally been programmed to do. Also, HERB is learning when a person wants to accept something from or hand something to HERB. While these tasks are simple for people, they are basic concepts in robotics that need to be overcome before robotic butlers can be practically used in homes and communities.


A Strong-Arm robot helps transfer Dr. Rory Cooper from his wheelchair onto a sofa.

Smarter Power Chairs

For more than two decades, scientists and engineers have been working on robotic wheelchairs. The results of this research has positively impacted electric-powered wheelchairs, although the results may not be obvious. Current electric-powered chairs are orders of magnitude smarter than they were even ten years ago. This has provided greater programmability enabling more people to achieve independent mobility. Also, power wheelchairs contain internal monitors that allow technicians to pinpoint problems and designers to better meet the needs of users through data driven design.

Recent advances include wireless connectivity between an electric-powered wheelchair and computer to be able to use the input device of the wheelchairs for computer access. Also, smart phones can be connected to modern power-chair controllers to download data, upload software, and customize settings. Sensors improve control, ameliorate the risk of rollover or falls, and reduce slippage and the possibility of becoming stuck.

Robotics continues to lead the way for electric-powered wheelchairs in new and innovative ways. Florida State University and the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) are working with support from the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center of the U.S. Army on terrain-dependent control, where settings change based on the type of terrain to optimize driving performance and safety. HERL and the NSF QoLT ERC are also working on a novel robotic base for a power chair to help users naturally and intuitively negotiate difficult terrain (e.g., ice, gravel, sand, side slopes) and common community driving obstacles (e.g., curbs, steps, steep slopes) that have plagued power-chair users for decades.

 Assistance from Arms

Fixed and wheelchair-mounted robotic arms have been and continue to be explored to assist people with disabilities. Early systems used industrial-style robots (e.g., DeVAR and MoVAR) that proved too expensive and impractical for home and community use but provided useful information for further investigation.

While a number of experimental assistive robotic arms exist, few have been used extensively by people with disabilities. The MANUS ARM, from Exact Dynamics, is probably the best known and most widely used robotic arm for people with disabilities.

There are significant challenges faced when developing robotic arms: cost/reimbursement, safety, size, payload, and user friendliness. These barriers have prevented robotic arms from gaining wider acceptance. However, the number of sales is growing, especially in Europe, due to lower costs, changes in reimbursement, and improved user interfaces.

Nearly all the commercial systems have limited payload capacities, typically in the range of 6–12 pounds. HERL and the NSF QoLT ERC recently began testing the Strong-Arm, created to be wheelchair mounted and assist with lifting heavy objects, such as a turkey from an oven or draining a pot of spaghetti. The Strong-Arm has a payload capacity of circa 250 pounds to also be able to assist with transfers. This added feature may help with reimbursement, as transfers are a significant determinant of being able to live at home and are also a large source of injury for healthcare providers.

Few groups are developing combined robotic wheelchairs with robotic manipulators. This approach may have the greatest promise for meeting the mobility and manipulation needs of people with severe disabilities who use power chairs. The Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance (PerMMA) being developed by HERL and the NSF QoLT ERC uses a modular design and flexible architecture. PerMMA contains a mobile robotic base that can accommodate a variety of seating systems, and the real-time control hardware and software can accept tens of sensors as well as digital and analog input signals. This permits examining a wide variety of user control devices such joysticks, haptic interfaces, switches, gyroscopes, etc.

PerMMA incorporates two robotic arms using a unique track and carriage system. The track wraps around the back and both sides of PerMMA’s seat without interfering with tilt, recline, elevation, and legrest elevation. This permits the robotic arms to be optimally positioned around the wheelchair and to tuck behind the seat to maneuver through narrow passages or tow items. The carriage system allows for connecting various robotic arms.

Currently, the MANUS arms and Strong-Arm have been used with PerMMA. PerMMA is designed so the base and the arm controllers communicate with one another through a network to coordinate control. Also, PerMMA has Internet connectivity to provide for remote operation. The local user and remote operator may work collaboratively using a concept called “interdependent control,” with the local user (the person in the seat) always remaining in control. Interdependent control allows more rapid completion of tasks, and assistance in complex or novel environments. In the future, there could be call centers for remote assistants, or caregivers could be trained to assist remotely.

Expanding Capabilities

Assistive robots are not intended to replace human caregivers or family members. They are there to increase independence and help people with disabilities participate more in their daily activities. The basic premise is to expand upon the capabilities of people with disabilities and their caregivers, and to enhance participation in life’s activities.

Robots are becoming a larger part of our commercial and private lives and will likely play a bigger role in assisting people with disabilities. There remain technical, social, safety, privacy, and cost barriers to overcome. There are grounds for optimism given the broader applicability of robotics and intelligent systems for the general population that seems to grow busier with each year, the expanding population of older adults, and the market for people with disabilities.

If the core technologies are developed and financed based on a broad market using universal design principles, people with disabilities could reap substantial benefits. Regardless of what the future holds, it is encouraging that work continues on robotics for use in the home and community and that large companies are investing in this area. Surely, spin-off products and the knowledge and advances gained will produce positive results for people with disabilities.

Note: PVA and PN do not endorse products or services. Those mentioned in this article are for informational purposes only.

Contact: rcooper@pitt.edu.

 

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