Lifewatch: Baby-sized robot

Reported by Claire Hosmann - bio|email
Posted by Debra Worley - email

(WECT) - Babies and toddlers learn at a rapid-fire pace as they begin to crawl, walk, and explore the world around them.  But what happens when a young child has a problem with mobility?

Researchers have customized kid-sized robots that help put babies on the move.

Andrew Peffley was born with spina bifida.  A few months ago the 2-year-old would have been stuck on the sidelines, but thanks to a pint-sized robot he's exploring the world.

Physical therapists and mechanical engineers joined forces to create robots that allow babies with disabilities to move around.  They're controlled by a joystick that's simple enough for a one year old to use.

"They realize very quickly, this means going," said Associate Professor, Dr. Cole Galloway. "That's the hook we use to start training them to directly drive to you."

The robot has infrared sensors that drive the chair around any trouble spots.  Researchers also attached a "baby-cam" to record the child's response.

Researchers just outfitted a preschooler with a robot and are studying the impact it has on his ability to socialize with other kids in school.

For more information:
Dr. James C. (Cole) Galloway
Department of Physical Therapy
University of Delaware
(302) 831-3697

BACKGROUND: According to the Spina Bifida Association, approximately 80 percent of all spina bifida patients have a spinal deformity that jeopardizes their ability to walk. There are three types of the condition. In Occulta Spina Bifida, a small defect or gap in a few of the small bones of the spine causes subtle, progressive motor deterioration that is often unnoticed until later childhood or adulthood. Meningocele Spina Bifida occurs when spinal protective coatings come through the open part of the spine and fill with cerebrospinal fluid. Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida -- the most serious type -- takes place when spinal nerves come through the open part of the spine, causing severe disabilities. A few tools have arisen to help those affected with the condition be able to move with ease by using the upper body to propel oneself.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS: A team of University of Delaware researchers are the first to conduct research on babies with mobility impairments and robots. They created a robot, UD1, which allows babies with disabilities to navigate their environment. Some of the infants involved in the study have conditions such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and autism. "This work being done is very important because much of an infant's development, both brain and behavior, emerges as thousands of experiences each day that arise as babies independently move and explore their world," Dr. Galloway explained to Ivanhoe.

It was once thought that a baby could not operate a wheelchair until the age of three, but researchers are developing miniature power chairs that are easily operated by a joystick. Babies as young as 6 months can operate the chair. Cole Galloway, Ph.D., of the physical therapy department at the University of Delaware in Newark, says a baby at six months can figure out which of two joysticks makes a toy far away move closer. Dr. Galloway also has a lot of quantitative evidence that shows that mobility is a causal factor in increased cognition and perception.

FUTURE OUTLOOK: Dr. Galloway is currently looking for solutions to the problem of babies outgrowing the chairs. He is exploring the possibility of a retrofit kit that would enable the reuse of existing power chairs by outfitting them so that the robotics would fit the growing child. The University of Delaware is also working on ways to make the chair smaller so it is more mobile in the home.

Copyright © 2009 Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc.