How easy it is to take the simple things in life for granted. Like fetching something from the kitchen, or eating when you’re hungry – or scratching an irritating itch. For most people, all it takes is a quick sequence of movements. But for some disabled people, nothing can be taken for granted – not without a helping hand. For many disabled people, relying on others to assist in everyday tasks is a daily reality. The Bremen-based Steinbeis Transfer Center i/i/d (Institute of Integrated Design) collaborated in a joint research project to develop a new type of “care-providing robot”.
To enable severely handicapped people to complete part of their daily routine alone, without help from others, a number of research and development bodies have joined forces with leading companies as part of a research network project spearheaded by the Institute of Automation (IAT) at the University of Bremen. The result: a careproviding robot that can perform a number of elementary tasks. The invention consists of a robot arm (the “manipulator”), mounted on a wheelchair unit and operated using a computerized control panel. The arm, affectionately termed “Friend” by its developers, was born out of a number of earlier projects which the IAT has been working on since 1997.
With help from the care-providing robot, disabled people can now carry out general household tasks by themselves, such as preparing meals and eating. The robot can even help people return to work, by performing sequences of tasks in the office or workshop. The arm can be operated in a number of ways: using a hand or chin-operated joystick, by speech or eye control or using a brain-computer interface (BCI). Although it is the robot arm which performs the tasks, it is controlled entirely by the user – a key difference between the care-providing robot and personal assistants, who at best will do as they are requested but are unable to leave people to do things by themselves.
The role of the i/i/d in the project is to research user needs (user-centered research, user behavior, user needs/profiles/requirement/ scenarios) and work out, conceive and draft possible designs for the recovery robot, its “intelligent environment” and the user interfaces needed. Working in close collaboration with other project partners, the i/i/d drafted a design which accounted for user requirements and the different degrees of disability. The design had to work perfectly in practice and be easy to use, while remaining fully flexible, technically superior, and taking formal and aesthetic factors into account.
The research project was sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The system is currently being put through its paces by therapists and patients in the Friedehorst neurological recovery center – an ideal way to assess Friend’s usefulness on a day-to-day basis.