Columbia Researchers Look to Robotics to Help Individuals with Disabilities

A Barrett robotic hand used for grasping objects at Columbia University's robotics lab.

A Barrett robotic hand used for grasping objects at Columbia University’s robotics lab.

Using both hardware and software, researchers at Columbia University in New York City are developing robotics technology aimed assisting disabled individuals in daily life.

The goal is to eventually see mobile robotic platforms helping people pick up everyday objects at home, according to Ph.D. student Jonathan Weisz. Someone in a wheelchair, for example, could make use of the technology to grasp different objects.

Inside Columbia’s robotics lab, Weisz and others use a three-fingered Barrett robotic hand along with software to execute different grasps on items like a shampoo bottle and a detergent bottle. The system can be controlled via electrodes placed on muscles just below a user’s ear.

“To do this, you only need control over one muscle on your body,” Weisz says.

A Microsoft Kinect, originally designed for the Xbox 360, helps to map the lab environment so the robotic hand can “see” what it needs to grasp.

Weisz says he’s working to create a system with more intelligence – enough so that users wishing to manipulate a robotic hand only have to choose between three commands: “Yes,” “No,” and “Tell me more.”

He also says the software he’s using won’t just work with the hand inside his lab.

“Next week we’re expecting a new hand to come in,” he says, “and I don’t expect to have to change any of my code.”

Weisz says the overall goal is to get beyond the classroom and into the real world. Moving from the controlled conditions of a lab to an outside “unstructured environment,” like someone’s home, is the real endgame.

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