Henry Evans recently shaved himself for the first time since a stroke left him mute and partly paralyzed 10 years ago. His achievement came thanks to researchers in robotics, not medicine, and it demonstrates the huge potential that robots have for assisting people with disabilities.
Yet it also shows how much work still needs to be done to enable robots to work closely with humans. Each time Evans uses the robot, he must be accompanied by engineers ready to intervene if something goes wrong.
The techniques being developed to address this challenge could also prove useful in factories, where they could enable humans and robots to work together more closely on complex manufacturing tasks.
Evans has been using a two-armed robot on wheels known as a PR2, which was created by the private research lab Willow Garage.
Evans operates the robot by moving an on-screen cursor with head movements, and by clicking a button with one finger. Engineers at Willow Garage and the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech built a special user interface the runs on Evans’s computer to enable him to control the robot and give him views from cameras on the robot’s head and arms.
Evans can take direct control and steer the movements of its wheeled base and arms. He can also click on the video feeds from the camera to tell the robot where to position one of its grippers, or where to grasp an object.
Evans can, for example, scratch his face by clicking on where his head appears in the video feed. That moves the robot’s gripper close enough for him to rub against it. He was able to shave himself in a similar manner after an electric shaver was attached to the robot’s gripper. Evans can also use the robot to move objects around and put them into drawers in another room.
“Anytime Henry is left alone, he is unable to do a single thing for himself,” says Steve Cousins, CEO of Willow Garage. “We’re showing how robots could give back independence to people in that situation.” Cousins hopes to recruit more people who could benefit from robotic assistance to join the research project.