How aKin’s robots can provide independence to those living with mobility-limiting disabilities

November 30, 2022
Jacob Tomkins

Robots play an increasingly important role in our homes and in our lives. By repurposing our robots, created for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), aKin hopes to seize on this trend to help people living with mobility-limiting disabilities.

To better understand how our robots can be adapted as useful home helpers, we have enlisted the first hand experience of people living with spinal cord injuries. Data was collected from a series of 10 interviews, which included one in depth case study, to determine the needs of members of Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA).

Spinal Cord Injury in Australia

At the end of 2020, there were just under 21,000 people living with spinal cord injuries in Australia, a number that grows by almost 400 each year.

Many of those in this cohort are heavily reliant on support workers, which strips them of their agency and overall independence. This prevents a key opportunity for home-assistance robots to make improvements to quality of life.

Through consultation with people living with spinal cord injuries, aKin was able to determine just how robots could be applied to assist with daily activities.

Integrating Lived Experiences

What we learnt is that people living with spinal cord injury would like robots to be able to help pick items up off the floor, move light objects out of the way, retrieve items from high shelves, and fetch cups of tea, coffee and water.

Other requests included the ability for the robot to monitor posture when the person is in their wheelchair or in bed, and monitor physiological state, which might include checks like blood pressure.

By equipping our robot with an AI brain, it would also allow it to update clinical checklists, monitor things like autonomic dysreflexia (potentially life-threatening hypertension), help with meal planning and shopping lists, organise support workers, and provide real-time alerts and reminders. All things mentioned during our consultations.

Finally, high up on the list, was the ability for aKin’s AI brain to mediate interactions with a smart home system.

The helper robot we are building has a robotic arm that is able to complete tasks such as: picking up items from the floor, moving objects aside, retrieving items from shelves, and fetching and carrying items throughout the house.

The robot has in-built storage trays that automatically slide out — the top-most tray has slots to secure objects such as cups, and the bottom tray acts as a storage box that can be used to transport items such as laptops or medication around the house.

Helper Robots Before Us

Others have come before us. The Baxter robot, made by Rethink Robotics, was designed to be an industrial robot but found its greatest purpose when its makers gave scientists the ability to ‘hack’ its hardware through access to an open-source SDK (Software Development Kit).

Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York used Baxter for a number of projects including Baxter-on-Wheels and Jamster, both of which would allow a mobility-impaired person to control the robot while it performed tasks such as moving items around.

Baxter was also used by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to help blind and partially sighted people navigate public spaces such as train stations.

A number of car companies are now experimenting with how they can help customers with mobility issues. Toyota’s Human Support Robot is described as a robot ‘butler’ that can help around the home by moving objects, opening curtains, and suctioning up ‘thin’ items.

Hyundai have their walking car, known as Elevate, an electric car fitted with robotic legs. One of their use cases is providing wheelchair users with a car that comes right to the door of their building.

aKin’s Mission

At aKin we are bringing a new focus to robots in the space of disability. While previous robots had indirect applications for people with disability, our goal is to create robots tailor-made for this purpose.

aKin’s core mission is to improve peoples’ lives, and applying our robots in a way that gives back agency and independence to those living with spinal cord injuries cuts through to the core of this mission.