Thursday, April 06, 2006

You will never bang into anything again

As we are moving towards an aging society, healthcare for the elderly has gained more importance. The use of assistive robotics technology would enable significant saving in term of expenditure in healthcare for the elderly. At the same time, it would help to improve and enhance the daily life of the elderly. However, the idea behind this is not to replace the ability of the user but to enhance it. The assistive robotic walker is one such robot designed to improve the daily life of elderly. It main function is to improve the ease and safety of the pedestrian travels of elderly user. In other words, it prevents the elderly from knocking into obstacles and falling down that might result from sudden change in terrain. However, it does not serve to replace the user’s ability to walk but merely act as a tool to assist the user in walking. The assistive robotic walker is developed based on a three-wheeled frame rollator. Sonar, infra-red sensors, and motor system to steer the front wheel have been installed. An automatic braking system has also been installed. Input to the walker is obtained via the sensors installed in the handles, in which the different in force applied by the user to the two handles are sensed. Both the user and the agent are able to control the walker frame and both are able to observe the results of the action taken. One important feature of this walker frame is that, it cannot move without the implicit consent of the user and so move on its own. Hence, the control in this robot is not hierarchical. The walker’s design can be said to be passive, cooperative, and submissive. It is passive because it has no forward drive motor. Therefore, in order to move forward, it relies on the user for motive force. With that, it allows the user to move at his or her own pace, thus giving him or her feeling of control. The walker is said to be cooperative because it tries to infer the user’s path and based on this information, to decide on how to avoid any obstacles in the path of the user. It is submissive because the walker would monitor if the user resisted the actions selected by the walker. If this is the case, the movements will be adjusted. This cycle continues, until the user agrees to the action selected by the walker.
  • How does the frame walker infer the path of the user?

The frame walker made use of a path inference algorithm to infer the intended path of the user. At each step, the walker estimates the probability that the user is traveling on each of the possible arc from its current position by assigning a weight to each of the paths available. One question may pop up from your mind? What if the user turns the frame walker in place? Through that, he or she could in fact move to any point in a straight line. However, the frame walker is designed in such a way that, it assumes that the user usually do not operate the rollator in such a way. Most of the time, the walker is moved in a non-holonomic style. All the motions are a combination of translation and rotation, in other words and arc. How much weight to give to each path is depending on the orientation of the walker. Paths are first weighted by the orientation of the walker. If the path translation component is the same direction as that indicated by the walker sensor, more weight would be given to that path than its opposite component. When the walker is at rest, more weight will be given to path in front of the walker. Next, the paths are weighted by length. In the beginning, longer paths are given more weight. Paths are then weighted by a history of the user steering input. Additional weight will be given to paths that are similar to the arc traveled in the last time step. The walker would select the path with the highest weight. The sensors in the walker allow it to monitor the difference in force applied to both handles. When more force is applied to one handle, the walker will turn in the opposite direction. The amount of translation and rotation would be determined by the difference in force applied. If the difference is large, there would be more rotation and less translation. Equal force on both handle would mean that the walker would move either forward or backward. What happen when the path selected by the walker does not corresponds to the desired path of travel of the user? In this case, the agent would reduce the weight of paths near the direction of the wheel orientation. At the same time, the agent would increase the weight of path around the direction indicated by the user. The action taken by the agent helps to prevent the user from falling or knocking into obstacles. However, in the event of danger, the walker would override the commands issued by the user. Other than that, under normal situation, the user would be in control.

  • Obstacles Avoidance

Obstacles avoidance can be broken down into three levels. If the user is relatively near to the obstacle (distance t1), the walker would try to steer away from the obstacle. If the user get closer to the obstacle (distance t2), the walker does not have enough distance to steer away. At such, the brake of the frame walker will be activated slowly, proportional to the walker. However, if the user gets very close to the obstacle (distance t3), the brake will be engaged fully.

Despite the ‘goodwill’ of the walker to prevent the user from knocking into an obstacle, one problem arises. What if the user needs to go near the kitchen to wash hand? (That is to get near to the obstacle at a distance less than t3) Well, in this case, there is no choice. The user will have to step out of the walker.


U0205268 CHENHUAXING said...

How large and how heavy is the "assistive robotic walker"?

from the pic provided, seems it is not small.

can it walk on unflat ground(10 degree slope,for example) or a bit more complex geographical condition?

maybe it is only useful indoor since it doesnt have legs which could deal with more complex situations.

Edutainment said...

u0303505 Pham Dang Khoa

I like this idea since not so many products have been developed to assist elderly in their daily life. However the operation of this robot must be more user-friendly so that the elderly can get along with it easily. And same concern as Hua Xing, afraid that it is not able to work in complex terrains as it is wheeled.

U0308347 Qui Wei Loong said...

Well it is unlikely to climb stairs. If the wheel can be replaced by tracks it will allow movement in uneven surface and even climb stairs(if the track is long enough). It be much better

Exploration said...

U0205352 Lim Lipien

Firstly, I like to comment that this walker's obstacle avoidance behaviour might poses a big problem. The braking force which is implemented by the proportional controller might be a concern for the eldery people because as everyone knows that elderly people cannot receive shocks and surprises which may be caused by a sudden brake. The magnitude of the inertia forward force exerted by the sudden braking force is also an issue whether it is large enough to cause an accident for the elderly.

Medical said...

U0204570 Tang Shao Qiang

The walker is indeed a good news for patients with difficulty in moving around, especially weak elderly who might not have the strength to walk stably with just a walking stick. The response to pressure cues from the user's hands on the handles could be customized for physiotherapeutic procedures in which the patient could be made to put more effort into "steering" the walker over time so that the strength of his or her arms and legs can be built up gradually.

Edutainment said...

Name: Ooi Yi Xiang Patrick
Matriculation Number: U036703E
Email UserID: u0303375

This invention is good for children learning how to walk and for the elderly & also people with movement disabilities. This product could be improved though by incorporating different user-selectable modes which adjust the allowable degree of closeness to obstables. Like it was mentioned, the person may have to get close to perform certain actions such as washing hands. Also, the price of this robot walker wasn’t mentioned. Is it affordable for those elderly and disabled people who need it the most?

Exploration said...

u0204999 Sim Xin'An Eddie
This is a really good idea. With Singapore heading towards an ageing society, I think its high time that we use walkers like these to help our old. I think that the technology however needs more artificial intelligence as the obstacle avoidance technique doesn't seem to be good enough. If the person wants to move towards an object rather than away from it, perhaps the walker can detect the extra force and direction that the old lady is moving towards it rather than interpret any obstacle as bad. I mean, the elderly doesn't refer to blind people and I am sure some elderly can tell the difference between an obstacle and an objective. Perhaps for the blind, the walker can be designed as just obstacle avoidance.