By Joan Leotta
Being in two places at once is no longer an impossibility. Thanks to “telepresence” robots, people with disabilities who are confined to their homes can now travel for work or enjoyment beyond those physical limits. This exciting, new technology provides more than a virtual experience. A screen on wheels allows the individual controlling the telepresence robot to interact with people at the target destination, creating an interactive experience for everyone involved. In November 2013, Henry Evans, co-founder of Robots for Humanity, recently delivered a Ted Talk that astounded the assembled attendees. From hundreds of miles away, Evans, a mute quadriplegic who cannot leave his bed, “visited” the audience, spoke, and even powered a drone vehicle while “onstage” via a telepresence device called a Beam unit. The Ted website praised Evans as “a pioneer in adaptive robotic tech to help him, and other disabled people like him, navigate the world.” Indeed, as he personally attests, Evans has helped create a new path with this innovative technology: “I have always seen robotics as my best option. Put yourself in my shoes. I can’t move or speak. My motto is ‘if you want something, you look for options’.”
The term “telepresence” refers to a set of technologies which — via telerobotics — creates the sense and gives the appearance of an individual being present at a place other than his true location. Teleconferencing, which is its precursor, is an often used virtual meeting technology. With telepresence, however, the moveable robots produce a stronger sense of presence. With the added implementation of a Beam unit, the person visiting by robot can move about, interacting as a physical materialization with others on the job. The user’s position, actions, and voice, may be sensed, transmitted and duplicated in the remote location. Furthermore, information may travel between the user and the remote location, passing both ways.
Prior to telepresence technology, Evans depended entirely upon his computer to communicate. Even with that advancement, there were thoughts that remained trapped within his mind; his body was imprisoned within his home. Now, with his Beam, he can do more than apply his mind to work solutions. He can be there. He is proof that telepresence technology elevates the overall quality of life and workplace productivity for a person with physical limitations, no matter how severe. Using it Evans can once again enjoy the garden in his home and even tour art museums. It is a quality of life improvement beyond measure.
Johnson believes “partnerships are central to our work. Partners can be individuals, organizations, or companies with a national scope that preserve, celebrate, or educate. Two of our first partners were and still are the ADA National Network, and the Georgia Disability History Alliance. We serve as a clearinghouse by connecting and coordinating”. Johnson notes that “partnerships are like pieces of a puzzle—the more partners we have the more clearly the larger picture of rights for everyone is assembled.” An example of this is Legacy’s work with the Center for Civil & Human Rights that opened in Atlanta in 2014. Johnson has been involved with the museum from its inception. The Center has included disability rights in its core displays and in fact, from May through September of this year, is participating in the anniversary with an exhibit of disability-rights that will feature ADA milestone photos by Tom Olin.
Furthering this Technology with R4H
According to Evans, “the primary role of R4H (Robotics for Humanity) is to inspire and motivate engineers to apply their knowledge of robotics to help the disabled.” To achieve this goal, R4H has partnered with a number of organizations since its inception. Evans notes that, “Many groups have participated in one-time projects. The groups that have creatively participated in many projects over an extended period of time are: The Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech, led by Dr. Kemp; Willow Garage/Suitable Technologies [founded by Scott Hassan], and Savioke Technologies [founded by Steve Cousins]. Dr. Kemp and Steve Cousins co-founded R4H with me. My nephew Henry Clever has also added a lot of energy and creativity to many projects over the years.” Steve Cousins of Savioke remarked that, “Savioke (pronounced “savvy oak”) is creating autonomous robot helpers for the services industry. So I have been a sponsor of various sub products. One of these was a device known by the group as ‘scratchbot,’ a project Evans’ son helped with to allow his father, who is immobile, to scratch his nose.”
As a single-use device, the ‘scratchbot’ may not generate a widespread demand. Nonetheless, its creation has contributed to refining the effective implementation of the Beam unit and similar robotic devices. As a result, the field has expanded as other organizations with the same mission collaborate. Steve Cousins explains that Savioke has played an important role in these partnerships, making connections with “Evans and professors from different universities at “Willow Garage,” including Ted Jenkins who was at the Ted talk.”
Cousins goes on to explain that Savioke is “guided by the beacon that is R4H.” The company is “passionate” about delivering easy-to-use yet sophisticated robots that improve the lives of people in places where they live and work. By developing and deploying robotic technology in human environments, Cousins believes that over time, personal robots will help people to achieve their potential, enhancing strengths, overcoming weaknesses, and endowing new capabilities. “We are just beginning to imagine. We are inspired by people who use technology to overcome disabilities, and we believe that robots have the potential to make all of our lives better.”
Disseminating the Technology
Lowering the cost of Beam units and familiarizing the broader culture with its practical uses will be key to disseminating this new technology. Although the unit used by Evans costs more than twenty thousand dollars to produce, units with similar capability are now available for two thousand dollars. As far as public familiarity with the product concept, the popular comic strip “Baldo” features a character who uses Beam technology to great effect. Confined to her home because of a compromised immune system, Rayna, a vibrant teen, is nonetheless fully engaged in a high school experience via the use of a telepresence robot. Beam technology is readily accepted by her family, her boyfriend, in her classroom and by her peers. Though obviously fictional, Reyna’s reliance on her Beam unit models possibilities for people with disabilities and the people who support them.
Finally, widespread acceptance of the Beam necessitates precision in ergonomics: effective design plays a vital role. Both Henry Evans and Steve Cousins agree that there will be almost no training needed if the robot is properly designed. Evans recalls, “I needed only ten minutes of training to use the robotic body (the Beam) featured in the Ted talk. It is very intuitive.”
Advances Benefit Many
R4H has a spillover effect, encouraging many to participate in inventing devices that can assist people with disabilities. When a group of high school students in Australia learned that Evans was unable to interact with his dog, one student in particular, Amber. So, offered to build him a remote controlled electric dog feeder that Evans could control with his head. The Australian High School’s Robotics class allowed for the environment where such single purpose inventions can be invented and find applications beyond their intended sole use.
Spillover from robotics research aids daily life for everyone—able-bodied and those with disabilities alike. The reach of this technology is increasingly common, varied and potentially vast. Few consider that the typing aids used on cellophanes are direct descendants of the typing aids developed for people with disabilities. Savioke develops robotic solutions to help with jobs in the service industry including devices that can carry heavy items. For this reason, Evans feels that all types of disabilities, not only extreme, multiple ones can be aided by robotic solutions. “Different disabilities need different interfaces, ” he points out but all can benefit. Consider the exciting development of R4H is implementing Beam units in Disneyland so sick children in hospitals can visit anytime! People with long-term disabilities and chronic conditions will encounter a unique set of challenges as they get older. But that doesn’t mean they can’t age successfully and safely. The Georgia Tech website affirms that research in this area of robotics will aid us all as we grow older.
Cousins says, “I think one of the things that changed over the last ten years is that we have progressed from a world where robots were rare except for those in factories. Now robots are coming in and out from behind cages and more importantly, are not confined to industrial uses and research labs but starting to be made affordable. For example, in industry, ten years ago people were looking to make delivery robots only for in hospitals to carry five hundred pound loads — big lumbering thing but now we can build smaller and inexpensive lighter and smaller and it can do smaller loads, even making them affordable for smaller institutions.” In addition technology like the Beam are already available at a price that is affordable for individuals.
This is just the beginning. Henry Evans’ tragic stroke at the age of 40 rendered him voiceless and quadriplegic. Through robotic technology, Evans continues to find ways to explore and interact with the world. Devices developed by members of Robots for Humanity to date range from a laser pointer mounted on his glasses to a very expensive humanoid robot (PR2) to various flying quad rotors. Through robotic technology he speaks and brings his ideas to the world.