Robots that help severely disabled people are generally assumed to have to be super smart, capable of replacing human caretakers. Engineers at Georgia Tech decided to take a very different approach, instead empowering disabled people to control the robots that help them.

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The technology allows disabled people to see what the robot is seeing, since a video feed is passed from the robot’s cameras to the bedside computer. It also allows for careful, planned control of the robot’s movements.

The robot used was the PR2 mobile manipulator from Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley robotics firm. It’s a humanoid robot with two arms that can hold onto towels, spoons, and other things. They can also be used to scratch an itch, a particularly popular feature.

Two studies were performed to judge whether severely disabled people, using interfaces they’re already accustomed to, including eye and head trackers, could operated the robots. One was more “virtual” than the other, and it involved people controlling a PR2 robot that was somewhere else. They did quite well and showed that indeed a complex robot can be operated by people that can’t move much of their own body.

The other study had a person taking advantage of a robot to perform regular tasks over a period of one week. Henry Evans, who otherwise can’t move his arms or legs, was able to shave, brush his teeth, and even took advantage of the two robotic arms to simultaneously use a towel to clean up.

Because the PR2 robot is already available and prices for robots are dropping quickly, it looks like they will soon be helping people obtain important independence and allow caretakers to focus on other things. Even healthy people will soon be jealous of these things.

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