Innovations in Assistive Robotics Show Promise for People With Disabilities
Technology is vital to improving the lives of millions of people around the world living with disabilities. Advancements in everything from bionic limbs to robot caretakers have opened up doors to physically challenged people like never before.
The demand for technological solutions for mobility and daily life is high, with 26% of Americans diagnosed with a disability as of 2018. Assistive robotics has played a particularly vital role in creating new opportunities for disabled people, even allowing them to socialize using robotic avatars and assistive automobiles.
Advances in Inclusive Technology
Advances in technology over the years have led to a wide range of innovations for people with disabilities. These include quality of life inventions for people with mobility issues as well as speech impairments and even common color blindness.
- Bionic limbs: Long a staple of science fiction, bionic limbs have become a reality. Modern bionic prosthetics are capable of advanced and precise movement, allowing amputees to perform many day-to-day tasks that previously weren’t possible with artificial limbs. Scientists have developed the world's first truly bionic leg and dozens of bionic arms and hands capable of complex ranges of motion.
- Virtual reality (VR): Some people have disabilities that limit their opportunities to go outside or travel. With the development of virtual reality, these people can see more of the world than ever before. This technology is becoming more and more accessible; all most users need to get into it is their smartphone and one of any number of affordable headsets. While more expensive options are available for immersive videogame experiences, VR viewers can easily be found for under $10, and hundreds of free apps are available online.
- Text-to-speech: Communication is becoming easier for people who live with speech impairments, thanks to improvements in text-to-speech technology. Now easily accessible from everyday smartphones and laptops, text-to-speech allows people with a limited speaking ability to type out what they want to say and have it spoken aloud by advanced text analysis software. This technology has expanded to include realistic computerized voices, as well.
- Color-blindness glasses: Color blindness is one of the most common disabilities, affecting 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women, according to statistics from the U.K. National Health Service. Special lenses for everyday glasses have been developed that counteract the effects of certain forms of color blindness. This allows colorblind people to see colors as they really are.
Advances in Robotics for Disabled People
Robotics is the most advanced segment of technology for disabled people, and arguably the most exciting. Engineers all over the world have been creating robots that can help people with disabilities for decades, and many of these inventions are beginning to come to fruition.
1. Avatar Robots
Many people with disabilities are unable to leave their homes, making it difficult for them to socialize and earn their own income. In a cafe in Tokyo, Japan, incredible OriHime robots are changing that. These advanced robots are remote-controlled by people with physical and mental disabilities, allowing them to work as waiters. Equipped with cameras, touchscreens, and microphones, the avatar robots run the whole restaurant, taking orders and interacting with customers.
As more robots like this become available to the general public, people with disabilities will get to experience more independence and freedom.
2. Self-Driving Cars
One of the biggest concerns for people with disabilities is getting around. Many require someone else to drive them whenever they want to get out of the house. Advances in transportation are making it possible for people with limited mobility to get around completely independently, though.
Self-driving cars have been in development for years, originating with government-funded projects and research from engineers at prestigious universities. Many companies are working on bringing this technology to the general public, like Google’s Waymo, which is beginning to operate self-driving taxis in cities all over the United States.
Driverless technology still has a long way to go, though. Engineers are working hard to refine the artificial intelligence software that runs self-driving cars, but everyday use may be a long way off. Luckily, technology is available already that allows people with certain physical disabilities to drive cars themselves, using hand acceleration controls, ramps, and motorized seats.
3. Care Robots
For the millions of people who cope with disabilities every day, care robots can help make tasks around the house easier and more convenient. Engineers have invented robots capable of everything from eating assistance to handling objects around the house.
Toyota’s Human Support Robot, for example, helped disabled visitors at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The robots helped visitors find accessible seating and brought any refreshments they needed directly to their seats. Toyota’s Partner robots were originally designed to help care for elderly people, but their use at the Olympics is a step toward making them available for more people around the world.
Studies have shown that care robots are useful for socialization as well. Sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence can make these bots great company for people with limited mobility. They also allow family members or caregivers to keep an eye on disabled loved ones remotely.
4. Wearable Robots
Exoskeletons, long confined to science fiction, are mechanical imitations of bones and muscles that users can wear over their clothes. The process of designing mechanisms that can mimic the natural movement of the human body is complex, but engineers have made great strides in bringing this tech to the masses.
Robotic exoskeletons are readily available today to help people with mobility disabilities and injuries regain the ability to walk. Stroke patients can use exoskeletons to retrain movement in paralyzed hands. Parapalegic people can get back on their feet again with exoskeletons, which are rapidly becoming more affordable and accessible.
Models like HANK by Gogoa, a company based in Spain, use motorized joints to drastically speed up the rehabilitation process and get patients moving independently again, both indoors and out. This robotic exoskeleton has helped patients recover from strokes, spinal cord injuries, knee injuries, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Looking to the Future
Robotics has always been on the cutting edge of technology. This is only the beginning of a new, tech-driven lifestyle for people with disabilities.
As assistive robotics continues to develop, alongside smaller niches of inclusive technology, life with a disability will become more independent, social, and enjoyable. A veteran with a spinal injury will be able to walk again with the help of a robotic exoskeleton. A mom confined to a wheelchair will be able to drive her kids to school. A muscular dystrophy patient will be able to use a care robot to live independently.
The possibilities for physically challenged people are brighter than ever in our robot-powered future!
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