WeeBots: Driveable Robots for Babies Who Need Them

This is a WeeBot. It's one of the very few times it's okay to combine robots with babies, because a WeeBot is basically a way of turning a real baby into an unstoppable fusion of biology and engineering. Yes, we're talking about cyborg babies. Run!

Babies, as you may have noticed if you own one, like to get into all sorts of mischief, and studies show that exploring and interacting with the world is important for cognitive development. Babies who can't move around as well may not develop at the same rate as babies who can, which is why researchers from Ithaca College in New York are working on a way to fuse babies with robots to give mobility to all babies, even those with conditions that may delay independent mobility, like Down syndrome, spina bifida, or cerebral palsy.

The robots in question, called WeeBots, are Adept MobileRobots Pioneer P3-DX bases. On top of the bases are Nintendo Wii balance boards, which are rectangular platforms with load sensors at the corners. A commercial infant seat is placed on top of the balance board, and the robot can then be calibrated to move in whichever direction the baby leans. You might think that a six month old baby wouldn't necessarily have the facility to control a robot like this, but they catch on surprisingly quickly:

To test out the WeeBot, the researchers borrowed five infants, ranging in age from six months to nine months. Each infant was given five training sessions on the robot using a toy as bait, and by the end of those sessions, the babies were reliably able to control the WeeBot in goal-directed movement during periods of free play. All of the babies in the study were developing typically for their age; none of them had the ability to crawl, so the robots were their only means of transportation.

This was just a pilot study to make sure that the WeeBot worked, but recently published continuing research has also tried using WeeBots with infants with mobility disorders. It's turning out to be difficult for some babies to sit up enough to control the WeebBot by leaning, but in at least one case, a fifteen month old boy with cerebral palsy was able to learn to control a WeeBot, after which he started to develop crawling skills on his own.

Clearly, there's a lot of promising work going on here, and as the video shows, it's impressive how early these babies can be turned into robot drivers. Our hope is that eventually, the researchers will give WeeBots tank treads or jetpacks or something and see what these babies are really capable of.

WeeBot: a Novel Method for Infant Control of a Robotic Mobility Device, by Sharon Stansfield, Carole Dennis, and Hélène Larin from Ithaca College in New York, was presented last May at ICRA 2012. Continuing research has recently been published in the journal Physiotherapy.

Via [ LiveScience ]

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