How New Robotics Could Help Those With Motor Impairments

A hat could aid in controlling remote manipulators

  • Technological advances are making robots easier for people with disabilities to use. 
  • Researchers have developed a hat-like device that helps control manipulators. 
  • Improved speech recognition and artificial intelligence will also make robots more useful.
A robot helping a senior adult comb their hair.

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A growing number of robotic devices could soon revolutionize the lives of people with motor impairments.

A head-worn device recently developed at Carnegie Mellon University can help users who have trouble moving their limbs control a mobile manipulator. The invention is among the wide range of robotic devices, from artificial limbs to servant automatons, that could increase autonomy for those with disabilities. 

"Robots can lend their help where for situational, temporary, or permanent reasons, the individual may not be able to do certain tasks," Nandita Gupta, an accessibility product manager at Microsoft, told Lifewire in an email interview. "For example, if one uses a robot as a companion—it can be used for therapeutic reasons, as well as offloading cognitive heavy tasks to the robot companion. Additionally, it helps with improving mental health, and in many cases, we have seen that patients with mild cognitive impairment have shown improvements with robotic companions as well as people."

A Robotic Helping Hand

Remotely operated manipulators are a popular choice for individuals with disabilities. The manipulators can help with daily activities, but many existing technologies, like hand-operated joysticks or web interfaces, require a user to have fine motor skills. Now, researchers at Carnegie Mellon, led by robotics Ph.D. student Akhil Padmanabha, have developed a new device equipped with a hands-free microphone and head-worn sensor that allows users to control a mobile robot via head motion and speech recognition. The Head-Worn Assistive Teleoperation (HAT) is meant to be easier to use than other interfaces. 

"Speech recognition, using audio captured by a wireless microphone worn by the participant, is used for selection of four robot modes: drive, arm, wrist, and gripper…," the researchers wrote on their website

The Carnegie Mellon invention is only one of many robotic devices available for people with disabilities. But due to high medical expenses, many disabled people do not have the means to attend college. Yet, most jobs available to them require a college education, Steven Uecke, the CEO of SuperDroid Robots, said in an email interview. His company is developing a telepresence humanoid robot that will allow someone homebound or in a wheelchair to perform manual labor in a warehouse, factory, or remote locations like an oil rig from their home computer. 

In the future, Uecke predicted that robots would have "enhanced telepresence capabilities that include haptics (touch sensors) and the ability to operate multiple robots in various locations safely."

A friendly-looking white robot in a social setting.

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Robots are also used to help assist with daily tasks for those with disabilities, like picking things up and moving things around, Elad Inbar, the CEO of Robotlab, said in an email. Also in development are robots that can be controlled with your mind, like the NAO robot trial conducted at UC Bakersfield, which allowed a remote human with a neural transmitting helmet to move a robot using their thoughts alone. 

Delivery robots can help those with disabilities move things from room to room that they need to keep close by but cannot carry on their own. Cleaning robots allow disabled, medical, and assisted living facilities to provide residents with a sanitized and more comfortable space.

"Previously, robots for daily business needs were very costly and not as intuitive," Inbar said. "They required a large investment of both money and time and were difficult to learn to use. Recently, robots for these purposes have become much more capable and accessible to the public."

Robots can lend their help where for situational, temporary, or permanent reasons, the individual may not be able to do certain tasks

Robots as Social Companions

Robots can also be useful social companions for children with special needs, Inbar claimed. Tools, such as visual learning to build social skills, aim to control the environment and reduce the anxiety often created in children with special needs when interacting with human teachers or peers. 

"RobotLAB offers a variety of robots that can improve the sensory stimuli provided to students, becoming social mediators or facilitators, and develop successful academic and social outcomes," Inbar said. "Robots can help increase attention spans, verbal communication, social-emotional understanding as well as self-regulation techniques."

Smarter robots might soon be even more helpful. Artificial intelligence (AI) could help power robots that aid users with disabilities, Gupta said. 

"With the advent of OpenAI's ChatGPT improvements, we will see a huge surge with conversational AI improvements within robotics that would be great for people with disabilities," Gupta said. "It's not just going to make things easier; it's going to make them more delightful."

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