12:53 p.m., Jan. 11, 2016--NAO, a humanoid robot described by his
creators as a “little character with a unique combination of hardware
and software,” can read your moods, recognize your family members, and
learn your preferences in music, movies, and food.
A team of researchers at the University of Delaware recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health
to explore the use of the 22-inch robot in a new approach to pediatric
rehabilitation based on social interaction between robots and humans.
The interdisciplinary team — robotics expert Herbert Tanner, mobility
researcher Cole Galloway, and computational linguist Jeffrey Heinz —
will collaborate with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Imaging Science on the project, which is known as GEAR (Grounded Early Adaptive Rehabilitation).
“Our hope is that the robot will act as a magnet for very young
children with disabilities, along with their typically developing peers,
engaging them in dynamic group activities — controlled chaos full of
fun, friends and fitness,” says Galloway.
“Pediatric rehabilitation equipment and training currently do not
meet the needs of kids with motor disabilities,” he adds. “Young
children’s overall knowledge depends on their ability to be mobile with
peers — once they start moving, they begin to learn about the world in
fundamentally different ways.”
Like a toy, more than a toy
It’s no accident that NAO resembles a toy more than a research tool, but he’s a very sophisticated “toy.”
“NAO will interact socially with children and engage with them,” says
Tanner. “But, even more importantly, the robot will be programmed to
react to the behaviors of individual children and deliver personalized
Heinz, whose expertise lies in machine learning, will work with
Tanner on the programming by developing new algorithms that will enable
the robot to devise plans on its own based on its environment.
“Amazingly, we can use insights from how children learn language to
design robots that can likewise learn from their experience,” says
This capability is what will enable NAO not only to lead kids through
a prescribed sequence of steps in a choreographed training routine but
also to know when enough is enough.
If a child’s attention wanders, NAO will redirect her attention to an
activity likely to reengage her. If a child shows signs of fatigue, NAO
will offer him a more restful activity.
“We all know that babies’ behavior is highly dynamic,” says Galloway.
“NAO and our entire research team will have to be equally dynamic,
which should result in both significant and innovative gains for
pediatrics and robotics.”
NAO will be used in conjunction with a portable harness system that
partially supports the weight of special-needs kids and allows them to
move freely in an 80-square-foot space, as well as with a network of
cameras, sensors, and accelerometers that record the subjects’ motion
and type of activity.
Experts at Johns Hopkins will contribute by developing activity
recognition algorithms so that NAO can discern fine distinctions in the
types of movements the children make.
The data collected will enable the researchers to evaluate the
effectiveness of the robotic intervention. Once the system has proven
its efficacy through clinical testing in the Pediatric Mobility Lab and Design Studio
at UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus, the
door will be open to develop versions of the setup for use in community
homes as well as area schools, such as the classrooms and gym at UD’s Early Learning Center.
Tanner, who has already worked with Heinz in applying lessons from
child learning to robot training, is happy to be involved in a project
focused on kids with special needs.
“This work has the potential to have a clear and immediate effects on people’s lives,” he says.
About the research
The project is funded through NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The UD research team represents three colleges: Engineering, Health Sciences, and Arts and Sciences.
Tanner is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Galloway is the founder of the global GoBabyGo program and a professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, and Heinz is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science.
Article by Diane Kukich
Photos by Doug Baker