Tuesday, February 19, 2013

New Developments in Robotics

Picture of a Lady using a Robotic Arm to Drink
Picture of a Lady using a Robotic Arm to Drink

Working in Assistive Technology, we are always waiting for the next "killer APP", the technology that will come along and have a transformative effect on the lives of People with a Disability.  For many years we've looked in hope to the emergent field of Robotics for that breakthrough.

Researchers working on the Braingate Project at Brown University in Rhode Island, U.S.A., have successfully tested a Robotic Arm with a 58 year old woman paralyzed in 1996, enabling her to lift a cup of coffee to her lips independently for the first time since her accident.  Lead researcher John Donoghue reported that "for the first time in 15 years, she was doing something for herself”.

Previously the team at Brown University had used similar technology to allow a paraplegic man to control a mouse cursor on screen so as to use computer applications.
The technology currently being tested depends on small sensors being implanted in a person’s brain, these pick up signals from neurons in the motor cortex - the part of the brain that governs movement.  Through a series of exercises the sensors pick up particular signals and in turn “teach” the system which ones relate to particular movements.

Similar developments have been seen in recent research in the related area of Brain Control Interfaces (BCI), where researchers have been achieving similar results without the need for invasive sensors being implanted directly on a person’s brain.  Such non-invasive BCI’s tend to use senors that a person can wear on their heads, these pick up brain signals such as EEG (electro-encephalo-gram) signals which are similarly transferred into movements for robotics, controlling a computer or other devices.

Donoghue says the results are an important step towards assistive devices that can be controlled directly. "You can imagine an arm like this mounted on a wheelchair," he says.  Similarly, in the future we could see such cutting edge ICT used to connect people with significant disabilities with all of the potential that the internet has to offer.


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