Care-providing robot helps severely disabled to work
By Irena Guettel Mar 12, 2012, 10:18 GMT
Bremen, Germany - Lena Kredel has been confined to a wheelchair for more than 20 years. At first she could still move her arms, but they too are paralyzed now.
Kredel needs constant help, whether it be to drink a glass of water, scratch an itch or open a door. She has a job again, though, thanks to a robot assistant developed at the University of Bremen in Germany.
The Bremen researchers have dubbed their prototype care-providing robot FRIEND. It is a massive, electric-powered wheelchair that is equipped, among other things, with a high-end personal computer, a robotic arm and a stereo camera system to scan the environment. With its help, Kredel, a literary scholar, will soon be able to catalogue books in the university library on her own. 'That's already an incredible amount of independence for me,' she said.
Kredel just has to use her head to operate FRIEND. With her chin, she controls a joystick to select desired functions on a computer monitor. With her forehead, she triggers mouse clicks on a mounting.
'The system does everything by itself, but the user is in control,' explained project director Torsten Heyer, a mathematician on the research staff at the University of Bremen's Institute of Automation.
Heyer and his colleagues are still trying to improve the software. They are also developing a reading device that uses suction to grasp book pages, which are then turned by a lever. Kredel, meanwhile, sits in her wheelchair in a corner of the laboratory and watches the researchers work. The system will probably be ready for her to use in the library this summer.
Kredel has to practice a lot until then, so she drops by the university for several hours four times a week to learn, along with cataloguing, how to operate FRIEND. 'It's often strenuous, but I'm happy to be working again,' she said.
Kredel moved from Berlin to Bremen for the pilot project, subsidized with some 400,000 euros (about 530,000 dollars) by Bremen's Integration Agency, which provides job assistance to the severely disabled. The last time she worked was 11 years ago.
According to Germany's Federal Bureau of Statistics, 7.1 million severely disabled people were living in Germany at the end of 2009, nearly 17,000 of them paraplegics. They have few chances on the open job market.
'First of all, there's a mental barrier, usually due to ignorance,' remarked Peter Reichert, a member of the German National Association of Self-Help for the Physically Disabled. He said many employers had no idea that severely disabled people could perform as well other employees when provided with proper assistance.
The main goal of the Bremen researchers is to dispel this prejudice.
'We want to show that disabled people, with the help of a robot, can be employed just like non-disabled people can,' Heyer said. He added that while the system would not go into series production soon because the costs are still too high, it was conceivable it could be used in other libraries as well.
Birgid Eberhardt, an ambient assisted living expert at Germany's Association for Electrical, Electronic & Informational Technologies, sees great potential in the pilot project.
'A lot of experience is being gained that can be applied to other areas,' she said, pointing out that there had been few practical examples to date of people working directly with robots.
Intelligent machines are becoming increasingly important because of population ageing. Robots can help old people work longer or live alone at home.
'There are plenty of people who have trouble getting up from an armchair,' Eberhardt noted. A robot could get them a glass of water or hand them their reading glasses. FRIEND demonstrated the ability to do this in an earlier study at the University of Bremen.