While several research groups are developing brain-machine interfaces, one experimental robot stands out for its practicality. European researchers are developing a robot that people with severe physical disabilities can control with their thoughts. In a paper published in Proceedings of the IEEE, the researchers described their project as “an important step forward towards increasing the independence of people with severe motor disabilities, by using brain-computer interfaces to harness the power of the Internet of Things.”
For example, a person who is limited to staying in bed connected to essential medical equipment could send a robot out into another room to grab a snack. The user could even use Skype to stop and chat with anyone the robot passes by on its trip. The researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) developed a system called “shared control.” This hybrid approach lets the user send basic commands (e.g. “turn left”) through a brainwave-detecting headset, while the robot avoids obstacles and determines the best route. Users wear a hat that has electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors which pick up on their brain signals. They use their thoughts to give the robot basic directions and software translates these brain signals into commands that then generate actions for the robot. While en route, the robot’s nine infrared sensors will detect anything in the way, and then its control software will avoid the obstacles.
The researchers tested their telepresence robot by having people with and without motor disabilities navigate it through an obstacle course. Even when participants were at home, they could still use their thoughts to send the robot through a course in the EPFL lab that they had never previously visited, which in some cases was located in a different country. Each one of the 19 participants in the study was able to successfully navigate the robot.