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NIH Funds 3 Robot Projects Designed to Improve Quality of Life

Posted on: December 11, 2015

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Sara Seng

Robots are taking over ... the healthcare industry.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has invested $2.2 million in research funding to help develop three robotic devices that will improve the quality of life for the elderly, the disabled, and young children.

“These three highly innovative projects demonstrate the power of encouraging leaders in the field of robotics to focus their attention on solving issues that pertain to health,” said Grace Peng, Ph.D., program director of Rehabilitation Engineering at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, part of NIH.

A Robotic Walker

Mobility is key to maintaining independence in old age. When mobility declines, elderly people often have to use traditional walkers or wheelchairs to get around.

At the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (UAB), researcher Dr. Xiangrong Shen and his team are in the process of developing a power-assisted walker that will improve travel assistance for users whose ability to walk is slowly diminishing.

With a 3-D computer vision-based sensing system, the robot is able to detect the user’s motion and the environment. Its smart legs are used to easily overcome environmental obstacles that are a challenge for modern wheelchairs.

The robot has two modes: smart power-assist walker and smart mule. In the smart power-assist walker mode, the user is surrounded by the robot, which provides powered assistance to the user. In the smart mule mode, the robot walks alongside the user, carrying a load such as groceries or shopping bags.

A Glovelike Robot

Robotic technology is lending more than just a helping hand. It’s also helping patients with visual impairments grasp objects.

Dr. Cang Ye, a professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), is spearheading a team to create a hand-worn assistive device that uses computer vision to identify target objects in a user’s environment, determine misalignment between the user’s hand and the object, and then convey to the user the hand motion needed to grasp the object. The glovelike robot is intended to help the visually impaired travel independently and grasp objects on their own.

A Social-Robot Companion

Remember when you were a kid and you had an imaginary friend? Well, children are now able to have a robot friend that doubles as a playmate and learning tool.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing social robotic friends to promote and assess curiosity in children. The team, led by Dr. Cynthia Breazael, hopes the social-robot companion will influence a child’s mental health, academic achievement, and general well-being. Once the robot has been fully developed, researchers will evaluate its influence by creating a six-month longitudinal study observing how children learn and play, while interacting with the robot companion.

It is still unsure just how successful these projects will be to their intended audience. However, one thing is for sure: the robots of the future are here and they have NIH’s support.

Sara Seng
About Sara Seng

Sara Seng was formerly the social media specialist at Barton Associates’ Peabody, MA, headquarters, where she focused on growing brand awareness and engagement. She received her bachelor of science in communications from Salem State University.

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