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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Babies Take the Wheel of Driving Robots

Giving disabled babies the power of movement could improves their development.

  • August 24, 2010

Babies with physical disabilities don’t have the same opportunities to explore their environment as their peers, which is why giving them the infant equivalent of powered exoskeletons is a splendid idea.

But it’s the control mechanism on this particular baby robo-chair that’s the real genius: by sticking the baby into a seat strapped onto a Wii Fit Balance Board perched atop a Pioneer 3 robot platform, researchers from Ithaca College created a robot that travels in whatever direction a baby leans.

From the paper:

The balance board has responsive pressure sensors in each of its four corners and built in Bluetooth capabilities. We use a commercial Bluetooth adapter and WiiYourself! C++ library (ti) to access balance board data within our robotics software. Our software compares the values of the four pressure sensors to determine which, if any, direction the infant is leaning. When a sustained lean is detected the robot begins to move in that direction. When the child reaches out for an item, he or she leans in the direction of the item and moves toward it. We believe this will be the most intuitive method for a young child to learn to use.

If you’ve ever seen a baby try to use his or her hands, you can see why this is brilliant: babies just don’t have the fine motor skills to drive even a baby-size motorized chair.

The work builds on earlier research by engineers at the University of Delaware, who were able to build tyke-size motorized chairs–albeit ones that required children to master the use of a joystick. (video)

Anyone who has watched a toddler “get her wheels” might wonder at the wisdom of interpreting that phrase too literally, but the Pioneer 3 has safety all taken care of: it uses built-in sonar to avoid collisions.

There’s also a master override joystick that allows the therapist - or, eventually, a parent - to drive the robo-chair away from obstacles or stop it dead in its tracks. (And what new parent wouldn’t be both amused and grateful to be able to drive his or her baby around the house as if he or she were a radio-controlled car?)

While a proper scientific study of the suitability of this assistive device has yet to be conducted, preliminary tests have met with success: Three infants, aged 7 to 9 months, “were able to move the robot as they leaned to get an offered toy or drink.”

Those of you who find this work familiar may recall that its antecedents include, as is customary with experimental new medical devices, studies on animals.

Mostly housecats:

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