Robot Helps Those With Degenerative Diseases

A robot named “El-E” that could help patients with degenerative diseases was unveiled Wednesday during an Amsterdam conference.

The robot’s Georgia Tech and Emory University creators designed the 5 ½-foot-tall El-E with a focus on interacting with humans. With two lenses for eyes and speaking zany catch phrases upon completion of various tasks, the robot aims to provide lower cost alternatives to service animals such as guide dogs and monkeys. One of the key attributes of the El-E is its ability to grab any object its user points to with a laser.

“The entire world becomes a point and click interface. Objects become buttons. And if you point at one, the robot comes to grab it,” said Charlie Kemp, the director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Healthcare Robotics and the robot’s designer. “It creates a clickable world,” he told Associated Press.

El-E will begin being tested this year in real-world environments with patients with degenerative diseases.    

To command the El-E, the user points a laser at something for a few seconds. The robot beeps as it zeros in on the target, using its mechanical arm to grab the object.  It begins the return trip after the laser is directed at the user’s feet, then looks for a human face before handing over the object.

Kemp said engineers are often too focused on making robots behave like people, instead of the way they actually interact with people.  

“How can you make robots that are actually useful? That was bugging me,” he said. “And it’s a hard question to answer “” that’s why I’m happy with this. We made technical contributions as well as something that actually helps users.”

Researchers said that during trials, the El-E successfully fetched its target objects off the floor 90 percent of the time.   The upcoming summer tests will involve patients who suffer from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a condition in which nerve cells responsible for movement no longer function.  

“It will give these folks at least a level of independence,” said Dr. Jonathan Glass, director of the Emory ALS Center and a part of the team developing the robot. “You don’t have to feed it, and you can train it to do anything you want to do,” he said in an Associated Press report.

Other scientists have taken notice of El-E’s novel design.

“It’s very impressive work,” said Oliver Brock, an assistant computer science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s a serious and successful attempt to build a robot that can actually coexist with humans and successfully perform a task.”

El-E’s functionality is provided by dozens of sensors, lasers and cameras that help the robot locate target objects, and provide constant feedback for the proper grip needed to retrieve it. A mechanical crane that grabs objects from the floor or shelves dominates its petite body that rolls around on three wheels. And a lone Mac mini residing in its base powers it all.

Although it’s still a work in progress, researchers hope the laser-directed robot could someday open doors, switch light panels and guide patients.

For now, the robot’s arm can only carry objects weighing up to 1.2 pounds, and it has yet to be tested with sick patients.  And when the unit does malfunction, it can be a bit startling.

During recent tests, the El-E took a winding path on its attempt to pick up a coffee mug, stopping several times along the way. When Kemp and his students finally isolated the problem to a low battery, El-E regained its proper movement with only a slight stutter as it firmed up its grip on the cup. It spun around and paused shortly before detecting the user’s face and delivering the mug.

“Bob’s your uncle,” it blurted out.  And with that, the mission was accomplished.

On the Net:

Georgia Tech

Emory University