Written on Tuesday, November 27, 2007 by Gemini
Scientists have built robots that take care of mobility limitations in toddlers with special needs, helping them with their mental and social development.
Babies driving robots. Sounds fururistic, but it is actually the focus research being conducted at US’ University of Delaware that could have significant impact on the cognitive development of infants with special needs.
Two researchers – James Galloway, associate professor of physical therapy, and Sunil Agrawal, a professor of mechanical engineering – outfitted kid-sized robots to provide mobility to children who are unable to fully explore the world on their own.
The work is important because much of infant development – both of the brain and behaviour – emerges from the thousands of experiences each day that arise as babies independently move and explore their world. Infants with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other disorders can have mobility limitations that disconnect them from the exploration that their peers enjoy.
“Currently, children are not offered power mobility, such as wheelchairs until they are 5-6 years of age, or older,” Galloway said. “This delay in mobility is particularly disturbing when you consider the rapid brain development during infancy.” When a baby starts crawling and walking, everything changes for everyone involved. “Now consider the negative impact of a half decade of immobility for an infant with already delayed development,” Galloway said.
“Given the need, you would think that the barriers to providing power mobility must be insurmountable. In fact, the primary barrier is safety.” Therapists and parents fear a young child in a power wheelchair might mistakenly go the wrong way, end up in a roadway and get hit by a car, he said. And therefore, a baby robot…
“Our first prototype mobile robot, called the UD1, was designed with smart technology that addresses each of these safety issues so that infants have the opportunity to be a part of the real world environment,” Agrawal said. The tiny robot is ringed with sensors that can determine the obstacle-free roaming space, and will either allow infants to bump obstacles or will take control from the infant and drive around the obstacle itself.
The next prototype, UD2, will build on the current technology to provide additional control to a parent, teacher or other supervising adult. “In this way, we can bind technology and human need together to remove barriers for movement in the environment,” Agrawal said. Galloway said no one had ever tried using robots with babies – early experiments show that seven-month-olds can learn to operate the simple joystick controls – and he is passionate about the possible benefits to children with special needs of even younger ages.
“Infants with limited mobility play in one location while their peers or siblings go off on distant adventures all over the room or playground,” Galloway said. “With the robot, they become the centre of attention because their classmates want to try it.” “We predict that this increased social interaction alone will provide an important boost in their cognitive development,” he added.
Agrawal – a robotics expert who had been developing a fleet of small, rounded robots that could work as a unit through a wireless network – first approached Galloway with the idea. “When I saw his little robots, it was easy to envision a baby driving one,” Galloway said. Initial jitters were calmed by the first test run of the UD1 at the UD Early Learning Centre. “It was a relief when we saw that the children quickly grasped the use of the joystick,” Agrawal said. “If they had just sat there or cried, it would have been back to the drawing board. But over time, we have seen them increase their time with the robot and the amount of distance they cover.
”The project will now move on to a second generation with more than one robot. The researchers believe the study will also expand the understanding of young infants’ learning capacity. They believe the training, robot design and new technology derived from the project will provide the foundation for the first generation of safe, smart vehicles for infants born with mobility impairments. They want the UD1 to be light enough for moms to stow in a car trunk, and robust enough for babies to use in the home, yard and playground, and maybe even the beach.
Researcher James Galloway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, while Sunil Agrawal can be contacted at email@example.com