The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

WeeBots: Driveable Robots for Babies Who Need Them

Even at just six months old, babies turn out to be proficient robot drivers

2 min read
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 ]

The Conversation (0)

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?

Keep Reading ↓Show less