Autonomous Mobile Manipulation for the Motor Impaired

There has been a lot of press in the last six months revolving around El-E, the autonomous mobile manipulation platform for the motor impaired out of Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab (to which I belong).  There was a report in the NY Times on El-E's laser-pointer interface, and now a report in MIT Tech Review on El-E behaving like a service dog.  Recently, the lab's director (and my advisor) Dr. Charlie Kemp, gave an impressive talk at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute (CMU-RI) where he adeptly ties together these research initiatives and makes a compelling case for more autonomous mobile manipulators for the motor impaired.  Read on for the CMU-RI video and some choice images and themes from the talk.

First, for those who can spare ~75 minutes (45 of which are the talk, 30 of which are Q&A), this is a great talk!  One of the most moving portions of the talk occurs at approximately 1:03:00, when a motor-impaired person with muscular dystrophy (and a service dog) weighs in on Dr. Kemp's research -- it is priceless

Dr. Kemp addressed a number of research questions:

  • What tasks would be valuable to perform?
  • How can motor-impaired users direct a robot to perform these task?
  • How can a robot perform these tasks in unstructured environments, such as the home? 

Extrapolating from these questions, Dr. Kemp elaborated on a number of results that can be found on the Healthcare Robotics Lab website or publications page.  Most of the results center around the lab's robot El-E, pictured below.


El-E the Autonomous Mobile Manipulator for the Motor Impaired


During the talk, Dr. Kemp expresses a number of salient design decisions for El-E.  For example, the prismatic joint allows El-E to translate her sensors and manipulator up-and-down to take advantage of the planar symmetry in human environments, namely planes parallel to ground, such as tables.  This allows El-E to use the same sensing and grasping strategies on tables as she does on floors. 

Another design feature is the "Laser-Pointer Interface," wherein the user illuminates an object on a table or on the floor, and the robot autonomously retrieves the object.  This interaction can be seen in the images below and has been featured in the NY Times article, "An Assistant Who May Need the Occasional Battery."  This work was originally inspired by service animals, namely helper monkeys, that also utilize this type of interface.

Laser-Pointer Interface for El-E robot    Laser-Pointer Interface for El-E robot

The laser-pointer interface was expanded upon by the so-called "Clickable World", whereby 3D points (such as those provided by the laser-pointer interface) are used as virtual buttons that, when "clicked", direct the robot to perform particular tasks.

El-E Robot and the Clickable World    El-E Robot and the Clickable World

Borrowing further from the service animal inspiration, but this time service dogs instead of monkeys, Dr. Kemp addressed some recent work featured in the MIT Tech Review article, "Robot Mimics a Canine Helper: A robot inspired by helper dogs could assist the disabled and the elderly."  In this work, the robot mimics the feature set used by service dogs.  With just a few verbal commands (such as tug, pull, and push), combined with the power of the laser-pointer interface, El-E is commanded to perform a variety of tasks.   

El-E as a Robot Service Dog

One very interesting aspect of the service dog-inspired work is that the service dogs interact with doors and drawers through the use of fabric (such as scarves or towels).  The fabric forms a useful environmental modification that simplifies perception (no longer need to know all types of door handles) and interaction (just pull the red cloth).

Dr. Kemp also addressed his strong belief in haptics, particularly for tasks such as door opening.  He discussed my exciting work on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) as a way to address medication handling (a task that service animals are not allowed to perform), and he discussed a forthcoming "ranked list of everyday objects" that featured the TV Remote as the #1 dropped-object of importance for retreival by motor-impaired individuals. 

I've very briefly discussed a number of technologies and ideas expressed by Dr. Kemp in his presentation; however, my discussion has not been nearly as thorough nor articulate.  I'd highly recommend watching the video if you find any of these topics of interest!  Again, if you'd like to read about further details, much of the work can be found on the Healthcare Robotics Lab website or publications page.   The original CMU-RI talk can be found here.




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