A team of researchers from the University of California at Irvine lead by Laura Marchal-Crespo is developing a robot that will help train disabled children to use electric wheelchairs which can make a huge difference in the life of a child who has had little mobility.
Reporting on their research in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation this month, the results are looking quite positive for the training robot that they have named ROLY. ROLY's job is to follow a straight line marked out on the floor in a game of “tag” as the child learns to navigate the chair in order to catch the robot. The team, which also included Jan Furumasu and David J. Reinkensmeyer, trained the robot to respond to a child's success by performing a fun little dance for the child when it is caught; also the chair itself will play a little tune adding to the positive reinforcement and enjoyment for the child.
In addition to the reward that is found by succeeding in a training task, the chair is equipped with technical training tools that react to the child's particular level of use. The wheel chair features a force feedback joystick that is used to help the child learn to navigate and will react accordingly to the skill level of the individual user as they work through their training while offering assistance as needed to aid in the child's progression.
Of course this is not the first time that robots have been used for medical purposes. They have been successfully utilized in a variety of tasks from medical training to performing surgeries that require smaller incisions, quicker healing times, and less room for the error of margin than traditional methods. This project will help children and their families overcome the high cost, frustration, and time consuming labor of traditional training. Children who will benefit from the increased access to training may suffer from a variety of injuries or illnesses, such as cerebral palsy, which can interfere with a child's motor skills making mobility extremely difficult if not impossible. With the help of this tiny little robot and the vision of technology researchers, these children can find new independence and explore many of the wonders of their world in ways that they never could before.
The team plans to continue the research hopefully improving the “fun” aspects of the training and fine tuning their success to gain the project, and the positive image of robots, even more exposure.