This Robot Could Be the Key to Helping People With Disabilities


In 2010, Henry Evansnoticed a robotic on TV. It was a PR2, from the robotics firm Willow Garage, and Georgia Tech robotics professor Charlie Kemp was demonstrating how the PR2 was capable of find an individual and convey them a bottle of medication. For most people watching that day, the PR2 was little greater than a novelty. But for Evans, the robotic had the potential to be life altering. “I imagined PR2 as my body surrogate,” Evans says. “I imagined using it as a way to once again manipulate my physical environment after years of just lying in bed.”

Eight years earlier, on the age of 40, Henry was working as a CFO in Silicon Valley when he suffered a strokelike assault brought on by a start defect, and in a single day, grew to become a nonspeaking individual with quadriplegia. “One day I was a 6’4”, 200 Lb. government,” Evans wrote on his weblog in 2006. “I had always been fiercely independent, probably to a fault. With one stroke I became completely dependent for everything…. Every single thing I want done, I have to ask someone else to do, and depend on them to do it.” Evans is ready to transfer his eyes, head, and neck, and barely transfer his left thumb. He can management a pc cursor utilizing head actions and an onscreen keyboard to sort at about 15 phrases per minute, which is how he communicated with IEEE Spectrum for this story.

Henry Evans shaves with the help of a PR2 robotic in 2012.Georgia Tech

After getting involved with Kemp at Georgia Tech, and in partnership with Willow Garage, Evans and his spouse Jane started collaborating with the roboticists on a mission referred to as Robots for Humanity. The objective was to search out methods of extending independence for folks with disabilities, serving to them and, simply as importantly, their caregivers reside higher and extra fulfilling lives. The PR2 was the primary of many assistive applied sciences developed by means of Robots for Humanity, and Henry was finally in a position to make use of the robotic to (amongst different issues) assist himself shave and scratch his personal itch for the primary time in a decade.

“Robots are something that was always science fiction for me,” Jane Evans instructed me. “When I first began this journey with Henry, it never entered my mind that I’d have a robot in my house. But I told Henry, ‘I’m ready to take this adventure with you.’ Everybody needs a purpose in life. Henry lost that purpose when he became trapped in his body, and to see him embrace a new purpose—that gave my husband his life back.”

A smiling bespectacled man in a wheelchair is seated next to a robot consisting of a mobile base, a thin vertical pole, and a horizontal arm, whose gripper is repositioning a green blanket on the manu2019s lap.

Even easy duties like repositioning a blanket require a caregiver, however Henry can use Stretch to maneuver it on his personal.Peter Adams

Henry stresses that an assistive gadget should not solely improve the independence of the disabled individual but in addition make the caregiver’s life simpler. “Caregivers are super busy and have no interest in (and often no aptitude for) technology,” he explains. “So if it isn’t dead simple to set up and it doesn’t save them a meaningful amount of time, it very simply won’t get used.”

While the PR2 had quite a lot of potential, it was too large, too costly, and too technical for normal real-world use. “It cost $400,000,” Jane recollects. “It weighed 400 pounds. It could destroy our house if it ran into things! But I realized that the PR2 is like the first computers—and if this is what it takes to learn how to help somebody, it’s worth it.”

For Henry and Jane, the PR2 was a analysis mission reasonably than a useful software. It was the identical for Kemp at Georgia Tech—a robotic as impractical because the PR2 might by no means have a direct affect outdoors of a analysis context. And Kemp had larger ambitions. “Right from the beginning, we were trying to take our robots out to real homes and interact with real people,” he says. To try this with a PR2 required the help of a workforce of skilled roboticists and a truck with a powered carry gate. Eight years into the Robots for Humanity mission, they nonetheless didn’t have a robotic that was sensible sufficient for folks like Henry and Jane to really use. “I found that incredibly frustrating,” Kemp recollects.

In 2016, Kemp began engaged on the design of a brand new robotic. The robotic would leverage years of advances in {hardware} and computing energy to do lots of the issues that the PR2 might do, however in a manner that was easy, protected, and reasonably priced. Kemp discovered a kindred spirit in Aaron Edsinger, who like Kemp had earned a Ph.D. at MIT below Rodney Brooks. Edsinger then cofounded a robotics startup that was acquired by Google in 2013. “I’d become frustrated with the complexity of the robots being built to do manipulation in home environments and around people,” says Edsinger. “[Kemp’s idea] solved a lot of problems in an elegant way.” In 2017, Kemp and Edsinger based Hello Robot to make their imaginative and prescient actual.

An animated gif of a robot with a mobile base, a long unmoving vertical piece, with a small camera on top, and a horizontal arm that moves up and down, as well as extending outwards, with a two finger gripper at the end.

Stretch is a comparatively small robotic that one individual can simply transfer, but it surely has sufficient vary of movement to achieve from the ground to countertop top.Hello Robot

The robotic that Kemp and Edsinger designed is named Stretch. It’s small and light-weight, simply movable by one individual. And with a business worth of US $20,000, Stretch is a tiny fraction of the price of a PR2. The decrease price is because of Stretch’s simplicity—it has a single arm, with simply sufficient levels of freedom to permit it to maneuver up and down and lengthen and retract, together with a wrist joint that bends backwards and forwards. The gripper on the top of the arm is predicated on a well-liked (and cheap) assistive greedy software that Kemp discovered on Amazon. Sensing is targeted on purposeful necessities, with fundamental impediment avoidance for the bottom together with a depth digital camera on a pan-and-tilt head on the high of the robotic. Stretch can also be able to performing fundamental duties autonomously, like greedy objects and shifting from room to room.

This minimalist method to cellular manipulation has advantages past protecting Stretch reasonably priced. Robots might be tough to manually management, and every extra joint provides further complexity. Even for non-disabled customers, directing a robotic with many various levels of freedom utilizing a keyboard or a sport pad might be tedious, and requires substantial expertise to do properly. Stretch’s simplicity could make it a extra sensible software than robots with extra sensors or levels of freedom, particularly for novice customers, or for customers with impairments which will restrict how they’re capable of work together with the robotic.

A Stretch robotic below Henry Evans’s management helps his spouse, Jane, with meal prep and cleanup. Vy Nguyen/Hello Robot

“The most important thing for Stretch to be doing for a patient is to give meaning to their life,” explains Jane Evans. “That translates into contributing to certain activities that make the house run, so that they don’t feel worthless. Stretch can relieve some of the caregiver burden so that the caregiver can spend more time with the patient.” Henry is conscious about this burden, which is why his focus with Stretch is on “mundane, repetitive tasks that otherwise take caregiver time.”

Group portrait of a smiling woman with short hair and a green outfit, a bespectacled man in a wheelchair, a smiling woman in a black turtleneck, and a tall thin mobile robot with a camera and two finger gripper.Vy Nguyen [left] is an occupational therapist at Hello Robot who has been working extensively with each Henry and Jane to develop helpful purposes for Stretch of their dwelling.Peter Adams

Vy Nguyen is an occupational therapist who has been working with Hello Robot to combine Stretch right into a caregiving position. With a $2.5 million Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health and in partnership with Wendy Rogers on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Maya Cakmak on the University of Washington, Nguyen helps to search out ways in which Stretch might be helpful within the Evans’s every day lives.

A smiling man lies in bed. He is looking at a monitor which shows multiple camera views, including one of himself, as a robotic gripper holding a hairbrush scratches his head.To scratch an itch on his head, Henry makes use of a hairbrush that has been modified with a gentle sleeve to make it simpler for the robotic to understand it. Vy Nguyen/Hello Robot

There are many duties that may be irritating for the affected person to rely on the caregiver for, says Nguyen. Several instances an hour, Henry suffers from itches that he can’t scratch, and which he describes as debilitating. Rather than having to ask Jane for assist, Henry can as an alternative have Stretch choose up a scratching software and use the robotic to scratch these itches himself. While this may increasingly look like a comparatively small factor, it’s vastly significant for Henry, bettering his high quality of life whereas lowering his reliance on household and caregivers. “Stretch can bridge the gap between the things that Henry did before his stroke and the things he aspires to do now by enabling him to accomplish his everyday activities and personal goals in a different and adaptable way via a robot,” Nguyen explains. “Stretch becomes an extension of Henry himself.”

This is a singular property of a cellular robotic that makes it particularly worthwhile for folks with disabilities: Stretch provides Henry his personal company on the earth, which opens up prospects that go far past conventional occupational remedy. “The researchers are very creative and have found several uses for Stretch that I never would have imagined,” Henry notes. Through Stretch, Henry has been capable of play poker together with his buddies with out having to depend on a teammate to deal with his playing cards. He can ship recipes to a printer, retrieve them, and convey them to Jane within the kitchen as she cooks. He will help Jane ship meals, clear dishes away for her, and even transport a basket of laundry to the laundry room. Simple duties like these are maybe probably the most significant, Jane says. “How do you make that person feel like what they’re contributing is important and worthwhile? I saw Stretch being able to tap into that. That’s huge.”

A group of people sit around a table, laughing and playing poker. In the foreground, a man in a wheelchair has a large monitor in front of him showing camera views, as he looks at a device affixed to a robot arm that holds five playing cards.Using Stretch to control playing cards, Henry can play video games with family and friends with out having to be on a workforce with another person.Vy Nguyen/Hello Robot

One day, Henry used Stretch to provide Jane a rose. Before that, she says, “Every time he would pick flowers for me, I’m thanking Henry along with the caregiver. But when Henry handed me the rose through Stretch, there was no one else to thank but him. And the joy in his face when he handed me that rose was unbelievable.”

Henry has additionally been in a position to make use of Stretch to work together together with his three-year-old granddaughter, who isn’t fairly sufficiently old to grasp his incapacity and beforehand noticed him, says Jane, as one thing like a chunk of furnishings. Through Stretch, Henry has been capable of play little video games of basketball and bowling together with his granddaughter, who calls him “Papa Wheelie.” “She knows it’s Henry,” says Nguyen, “and the robot helped her see him as a person who can play with and have fun with her in a very cool way.”

A tablet attached to a mobile robot shows a smiling bespectacled man talking to a young girl in a colorful tutu and a woman in glasses, who are sitting on the floor coloring.Through Stretch, Henry can interact together with his granddaughter at her dwelling, with Jane wanting on.Vy Nguyen/Hello Robot

The individual working the toughest to rework Stretch right into a sensible software is Henry. That means “pushing the robot to its limits to see all it can do,” he says. While Stretch is bodily able to doing many issues (and Henry has prolonged these capabilities by designing customized equipment for the robotic), one of many largest challenges for the person is discovering the proper approach to inform the robotic precisely how to do what you need it to do.

A large monitor shows an interface consisting of multiple views from cameras, simple maps of a house, and a keyboard. A man is seated in front of the screen, with the arm of a robot just visible, holding a kebab on a red flat tool.The graphical person interface that Henry developed to manage Stretch makes use of a number of digital camera views and enormous onscreen buttons to make it simpler for Henry to do duties like feeding himself.Julian Mehu/Hello Robot

Henry collaborated with the researchers to develop his personal graphical person interface to make guide management of Stretch simpler, with a number of digital camera views and enormous onscreen buttons. But Stretch’s potential for partially or absolutely autonomous operation is finally what’s going to make the robotic most profitable. The robotic depends on “a very particular kind of autonomy, called assistive autonomy,” Jane explains. “That is, Henry is in control of the robot, but the robot is making it easier for Henry to do what he wants to do.” Picking up his scratching software, for instance, is tedious and time consuming below guide management, as a result of the robotic must be moved into precisely the proper place to understand the software. Assistive autonomy provides Henry higher-level management, in order that he can direct Stretch to maneuver into the proper place by itself. Stretch now has a menu of prerecorded motion subroutines that Henry can select from. “I can train the robot to perform a series of movements quickly, but I’m still in complete control of what those movements are,” he says.

Henry provides that getting the robotic’s assistive autonomy to some extent the place it’s purposeful and simple to make use of is the most important problem proper now. Stretch can autonomously navigate by means of the home, and the arm and gripper might be managed reliably as properly. But extra work must be carried out on offering easy interfaces (like voice management), and on ensuring that the robotic is simple to activate and doesn’t shut itself off unexpectedly. It is, in spite of everything, nonetheless analysis {hardware}. Once the challenges with autonomy, interfaces, and reliability are addressed, Henry says, “the conversation will turn to cost issues.”

Henry Evans makes use of a Stretch robotic to feed himself scrambled eggs.Vy Nguyen/Hello Robot

A $20,000 price ticket for a robotic is substantial, and the query is whether or not Stretch can turn into helpful sufficient to justify its price for folks with cognitive and bodily impairments. “We’re going to keep iterating to make Stretch more affordable,” says Hello Robot’s Charlie Kemp. “We want to make robots for the home that can be used by everyone, and we know that affordability is a requirement for most homes.”

But even at its present worth, if Stretch is ready to cut back the necessity for a human caregiver in some conditions, the robotic will begin to pay for itself. Human care could be very costly—the nationwide common is over $5,000 per thirty days for a house well being aide, which is just unaffordable for many individuals, and a robotic that might cut back the necessity for human care by a couple of hours every week would pay for itself inside only a few years. And this isn’t considering the worth of care given by relations. Even for the Evanses, who do have a employed caregiver, a lot of Henry’s every day care falls to Jane. This is a standard state of affairs for households to search out themselves in, and it’s additionally the place Stretch might be particularly useful: by permitting folks like Henry to handle extra of their very own wants with out having to rely solely on another person’s assist.

Henry Evans makes use of his customized graphical person interface to manage the Stretch robotic to choose up a towel, place the towel in a laundry basket, after which tow the laundry basket to the laundry room.Vy Nguyen/Hello Robot

Stretch does nonetheless have some important limitations. The robotic can carry solely about 2 kilograms, so it will possibly’t manipulate Henry’s physique or limbs, for instance. It additionally has no manner of going up and down stairs, isn’t designed to go outdoors, and nonetheless requires quite a lot of technical intervention. And regardless of how succesful Stretch (or robots like Stretch) turn into, Jane Evans is certain they are going to by no means be capable of substitute human caregivers, nor would she need them to. “It’s the look in the eye from one person to another,” she says. “It’s the words that come out of you, the emotions. The human touch is so important. That understanding, that compassion—a robot cannot replace that.”

Stretch should be a great distance from changing into a shopper product, however there’s actually curiosity in it, says Nguyen. “I’ve spoken with other people who have paralysis, and they would like a Stretch to promote their independence and reduce the amount of assistance they frequently ask their caregivers to provide.” Perhaps we should always decide an assistive robotic’s usefulness not by the duties it will possibly carry out for a affected person, however reasonably on what the robotic represents for that affected person, and for his or her household and caregivers. Henry and Jane’s expertise exhibits that even a robotic with restricted capabilities can have an infinite affect on the person. As robots get extra succesful, that affect will solely improve.

“I definitely see robots like Stretch being in people’s homes,” says Jane. “When, is the question? I don’t feel like it’s eons away. I think we are getting close.” Helpful dwelling robots can’t come quickly sufficient, as Jane reminds us: “We are all going to be there one day, in some way, shape, or form.” Human society is getting older quickly. Most of us will finally want some help with actions of every day dwelling, and earlier than then, we’ll be helping our family and friends. Robots have the potential to ease that burden for everybody.

And for Henry Evans, Stretch is already making a distinction. “They say the last thing to die is hope,” Henry says. “For the severely disabled, for whom miraculous medical breakthroughs don’t seem feasible in our lifetimes, robots are the best hope for significant independence.”

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