Perceptual robotics – enhancing life for people with disabilities

The presence of robots in various industries is no longer simply science fiction.

In the past two decades, robotics technology has seen rapid advances in the use of robots for many medical applications. These applications include surgery, diagnosis, medical rehabilitation, prosthetics, and improving quality of life for the elderly and those with disabilities.

With a growing global shortage of specialised therapists and the financial hurdles involved in long-term treatment, robots are changing the lives of thousands of people with neurological and physical disabilities.

Here are some of the exciting ways in which researchers in perceptual robotics, an interdisciplinary science linking robotics and neuroscience, are developing innovative robots:

  • Personal robots, also called personal robotic assistants, are able to assist the elderly or disabled. Some of these robots can even replace humans in performing repetitive and well-structured assistance tasks such as housecleaning, cooking, eating and personal hygiene.
  • Robotic prosthetic devices that restore lost function by aiming to emulate a missing limb or body part. These advanced prostheses have sensory-motor capabilities that enable them to replicate many limb and joint segments. By using brain-computer interfaces, they provide intuitive control for amputees or people with central or peripheral nervous system injuries (resulting from spinal lesions and strokes etc).
  • Therapeutic devices with sensory, motor and information processing capabilities, which are able to extend the perceptual, cognitive and motor abilities of doctors and therapists in many healthcare applications.

Some examples of robots used in healthcare include:

1. The uBOT-5, developed by the University of Massachusetts. This is an economical, child-size humanoid robot with extensive capability functions and durability. It provides assistance to the elderly and people with disabilities, enabling them to live independently and enhancing their quality of life. Equipped with “arms” and a computer screen, the uBot-5 can also be operated remotely by a therapist or caregiver using a touch-screen monitor and a webcam. A disabled person can communicate with the robot through a tablet, use speech recognition or a touch interface on a smart phone, depending on his/her capabilities to select which function the robot needs to perform.

The nifty uBot-5 humanoid robot can follow its owner around the house, do housework chores, assist with shopping, communicate with healthcare professionals and give handy medication reminders. In addition, it recognises when its owner becomes unresponsive or has fallen, even checking the owner’s vital signs before calling a 911 emergency service. Its successor, the uBot-6 is a toddler-sized mobile manipulator designed specifically for whole-body mobility. This slightly larger humanoid robot can balance dynamically on two wheels, “scoot” in a prone posture and knuckle walk like a chimpanzee. It is unhindered by objects in its path and can even fetch a box stored under a bed.

2. Human exoskeletons such as the ReWalk device – manufactured by Israeli company Argo Medical Technologies – enable people with lower-limb disabilities to walk upright with the aid of crutches. This device senses the electromagnetic signals which the brain continues to send out – even after a traumatic injury or neuromuscular disease – to get the body to do what it wants it to do. Prof Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, believes that exoskeletons will have a place in the future of robotics as they can “have a medical restorative function, or augment human function”.

3. The MANUS system, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and highlighted during the IROS Workshop on Neuroscience and Robots in Japan, is an upper-limb rehabilitation robot that is already used extensively in hospitals in physical and occupational therapy. It usually features arms whose endpoint is linked to or held by the patient’s arm or hand. It does this by either taking full control of a patient’s arm movements or helping the patient to do movements by using his/her residual capacities. The MANUS system replaces human therapists and supports them in various collaborative rehabilitation tasks by enabling a greater intensity of treatment that can be continually adapted to a patient’s needs.

4. Lower-limb rehabilitation devices such as the Swiss Lokomat system usually comprise exoskeletons that harness joint leg movements to help patients assume correct gaits and positions.

5. Robotic systems with humanoid shapes that use simple intuitive interfaces are also helpful to develop communication, enhance interaction and supplement cognitive rehabilitation therapies, for example in autistic patients. One example is the humanoid F.A.C.E. system, developed at the Centro di Ricerca E.Piaggio, University of Pisa.

6. An example of a human-robot Interaction (HRI) is the Giraff robot. In a recent pilot project in the remote Scottish islands, the Giraff enabled people with dementia living in remote rural communities to continue functioning independently and connect effectively with the outside world. This motorised robot can be controlled remotely via a normal computer, allowing communication between a carer/family member and patient in a similar way to Skype video chats. A carer simply calls into the Giraff and instructs it to do various tasks for the patient, such as checking all is well, ensuring medication has been taken, whether the patient has awakened, dressed and eaten, or simply to have a reassuring chat.

7. With substantial evidence to suggest that human-animal interaction can reduce loneliness and increase feelings of happiness, a recent study by German and Australian researchers revealed that a therapeutic robot companion called Paro had a significantly positive influence on quality of life and reduced anxiety in people in the mid-to-late stages of dementia. Developed at Tokyo’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the large fluffy robotic seal robot has tactile sensors and artificial intelligence software that enables it to respond to sound or touch, and display emotions such as surprise, happiness and anger. Paro can respond to words it hears often, and even learn its own name.

8. Socially assistive robotics (SAR) can offer personalised, affordable technology interventions at home or in clinics to supervise, coach and motivate patients using social rather than physical interaction. To be effective, a SAR must understand and interact with its environment, exhibit social behavior, focus its attention on the user, and be able to communicate and engage with him/her while being able to achieve specific assistive goals. Since these robots are able to recognise and display numerous human communicative cues (e.g. speech, gaze and gestures), they can create appropriate behavioural responses and interact socially with people suffering from a variety of conditions including stroke, traumatic brain injury, dementia, as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

- IROS 2013 Workshop on Neuroscience and Robotics: “Towards a robot-enabled, neuroscience-guided healthy society.” Tokyo, Japan, 3 November, 2013.
- Datteri, E and Tamburrini G. “Ethical Reflections on Health Care Robotics”. Dipartimento di Scienze Umane per la Formazione, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca b Dipartimento di Scienze Fisiche, Università di Napoli Federico.
- Online article:
- Dillman R et al. “Teaching and understanding intelligent service robots: A Machine Learning Approach”, Institute for Real-Time Computer Systems & Robotics, University of Karlsruhe, Germany.
- Online article: “NHS Western Isles to pilot robot to help dementia patients live independently.” (4 July 2013).
- Moyle W, et al. "Exploring the effect of companion robots on emotional expression in older adults with dementia: a pilot randomized controlled trial." J Gerontology Nurs. 2013 May; 39(5):46-53.

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