Robot Helps Quadriplegic Scratch an Itch for the First Time in a Decade

Willow Garage and Georgia Tech team up to turn a PR2 into a service robot for people with disabilities

2 min read
Robot Helps Quadriplegic Scratch an Itch for the First Time in a Decade

We love watching PR2 fold laundry, play pool, bake cookies, and bring us beer, but robots with the capability to do the same kinds of things that humans can do aren't around just to take over for us when we're feeling lazy. Robots also exist to do things that humans can't do, whether that's making fast and precise movements, defusing bombs, or lending a gripper to a person with a disability.

Henry Evans, the dude in the above video, has been a quadriplegic for the last ten years, having suffered a stroke when he was just 40 years old. He saw a PR2 on TV last year, and thought that a robot might be a handy thing to have around the house to help him live a bit more independently. Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab and Willow Garage have been collaborating with Henry since then, and he's been able to use a PR2 to do things like shave himself and scratch itches when he has them, things for which Henry has been dependent on other people for the last decade.

Part of what makes the PR2 ideal for this sort of thing are its high-level autonomous capabilities. Using a head tracker, Henry can give the robot commands to navigate to specific locations or fetch objects, and the PR2's sensors and software handle the rest. Of course, it's not realistic to hope that every disabled person will be able to one day get a PR2 (each costs $400,000). What is realistic (I hope) is that what Willow Garage and Georgia Tech are learning here will help them to design better software and hardware for the next generation of home service and healthcare robots, which will be affordable so more people can have them.

This project is an important reminder that while most of us are hoping that robots will at some point step in and make our lives easier and more convenient, most of us actually don't really need robots. Some people do need them, though, and it's great to see companies and research groups with so much expertise in this area working to make robots available where they have the potential to do the most good.

[ Willow Garage ]

[ Georgia Tech Healthcare Robotics ]


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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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