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image of fingernail sensor glove

Fingernail sensors developed at MIT unobtrusively measure the state of the human fingertip...

Credit: Stephen Mascaro, MIT


Helping Hands (and Feet and...)

A photo of Nursebot
Nursebot can act as a "live-in helper" for the elderly."

Credit: Carnegie Mellon University
Exactly the help you need, when you need it. That's a lot to ask for, especially if you need trained medical assistance. But robots may soon give many people the freedom to live safely -- and better -- in their own homes.

Nursebot, a project of Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan, is developing a "live-in" helper for elderly adults. Nursebot can remind a person to take medications or see the doctor. The robotic aide can also monitor vital signs and connect a patient with real nurses or physicians when needed. Eventually, Nursebot might also serve as helping hands and feet for patients with arthritis and even offer some level of social interaction for those who can't get around easily.

Nursebot is one of the many robotics projects in human augmentation and assistive technologies that NSF has supported over the years. Others include "Wheelesley," a robotic wheelchair that steers itself through buildings and dodges obstacles, and CosmoBot, which makes therapy exercises more enjoyable for children with physical disabilities.

Digital Clay combines the intuitive sculpting of natural clay
Digital Clay combines the intuitive sculpting of natural clay with intelligent, programmable tactile feedback to the sculptor...

Credit: Georgia Tech Digital Clay Team: M. Allen, W. Book, I. Eber-Uphoff, A. Glezer, J. Goldthwaite, D. Rosen, J. Rossignac, C. Shaw and their colleagues and students

Surgeons and physicians may also turn to robotic assistance to help them treat patients or perform long-distance operations on patients they can't reach in person. Other robotics technologies may lead to less invasive surgical techniques, even for coronary artery bypass grafts, which means shorter recovery times. Robotics research is an important focus for the NSF-supported Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology Engineering Research Center.

"We're encouraging close collaboration between engineers and surgeons to provide more precise information and procedures in the doctor's office and the operating room," said Gilbert Devey, an NSF program director in biomedical engineering. "We hope soon to see new, sophisticated systems that physicians can use to improve patient care and, in many cases, even lower the cost of treatment."

Other robotics researchers are developing assistive technologies that could make the computer keyboard and mouse relics of the past. Georgia Tech's Digital Clay project is developing a technology in which computer users would interact with virtual objects much as they would mold modeling clay. Steve Mascaro, now at North Dakota State University, developed sensors that read the patterns of blood flow underneath a person's fingernails. Because the sensors respond to the gentlest of touches, they could help persons with limited finger dexterity or carpal tunnel syndrome type or control a mouse cursor.

Next: Robots & Biology

Robotics A Special Report