March 27, 2014      

Joanne O’Riordan, 18, was born without limbs. She is one of nine people currently living with Total Amelia, a condition that prevents arms and legs from developing.

O’Riordan spoke at a United Nations-sponsored conference in April 2012 and challenged roboticists to create a personal assistant to help her pick up small everyday items.

“I want to live an independent life just like you,” O’Riordan said at the conference. “I don’t want to live in the shadows of others because I want to make my own journey in life. I know if I’m given the chance, I can and will succeed.”

The challenge was taken up by researchers at Trinity College Dublin and has resulted in Robbie the Robot – a prototype personal care robot, developed with a budget of just €50,000 ($69,100), donated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Robbie the Robot: Inside the Design

“The €50,000 covered absolutely everything, including the design, manufacture, and labor […] Some companies gave us great discounts and some donations (including Trossen Robotics). But other than that everything was within that 50K […] The vast majority of the work took place over the summer in the months June-October. Obviously, we had to draw on significant volunteer effort and goodwill to do what we did within that budget,” Chief Engineer Conor McGinn tells Robotics Trends.

Robbie’s ‘face’ consists of an 8-inch LCD screen attached to a 3D-printed head. A carbon-fiber, plastic and aluminum body protect the sensors, actuators, and lithium-polymer batteries that drive the device.

Robbie’s ‘hand’ is a balloon filled with coffee granules and is based on a gripper design first developed at Cornell University.  If O’Riordan drops a small object, such as a pen, she sends Robbie instructions via a tablet app to pick up the object.

Robbie is currently a working prototype, so there are limitations. For example, it only operates on flat surfaces and is unable to pick up large objects. But even with those limitations, it’s a noteworthy achievement to create a personal assistant robot with such a limited budget.

“I knew this was a hugely ambitious project, given the timescale and funding constraints, but I was confident that with the calibre of people we have here in Trinity and the goodwill they show, that we could demonstrate something of real potential for Joanne and other people who may have similar needs,” says Kevin Kelly, Assistant Professor at Trinity’s School of Engineering. “The prototype is just the first step on the journey, but we’ve designed it in a manner that will allow us to develop and extend the capability in any future generations of Robbie.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done with regard to making the design more elegant and the functionality more extensive before the robot would be ready for use outside of our test environment. However, even to get as far as we’ve done in this time is a tribute to the energy and ability of the team. It has been immensely hard work but sometimes you just have to do the right thing, and ultimately the reward is the satisfaction of seeing something like we have today.”

Future Opportunities for Robbie the Robot

Unsurprisingly, the team is now looking at commercialization possibilities.

“There are obvious commercialization considerations, but our principal focus here was on producing the proof of concept prototype to show that Joanne’s challenge could be met,” explains McGinn. “We will now be looking at all the potential future development avenues including commercialization in more detail.” 

According to The Journal, President Kigame of Rwanda has pledged to match the ITU’s €50,000 donation for further work on the robot. Rumors of other investors are also circulating.

“We have seen the reports about President Kigame and we have had some suggestions of other interested parties,” says McGinn. “We have had a huge response with people expressing support, some of which has indicated a willingness to get involved financially. We will, of course, be following up on these.”

Robbie (the name was suggested by O’Riordan and accepted by the team, who noted a coincidental link with an early Isaac Asimov story of the same name with some delight), was designed specifically for O’Riordan, but it could be modified to assist other people with disabilities, says McGinn.

“We were very user-centered in the design process, and there is a lot of specifics in the design that are in response to Joanne’s needs, [but] we would foresee that something which meets Joanne’s needs could also make a significant contribution to others with broadly similar needs,” says McGinn. “So, while this prototype was very much for Joanne, the vision we’ve expressed has broader consequences and benefits.”

Robbie remains a work-in-progress, but over time the team hopes to create a robot that compares favorably with more developed personal assistant robots like the Care-O-Bot

“Given the limited time and resources we had, it wasn’t feasible to invest in full ROS development, but this is something we are starting to work on now,” says McGinn. “We are currently looking for funding to build in both hardware and software features that will allow its capabilities to compare favorably with that of Care-O-Bot and other machines of this type.”

Potential investors and other interested parties can contact McGinn directly at [email protected].

Technical Specifications of Robbie the Robot

The following specs are provided by Trinity College

Design Objective
Build a mobile robot platform which demonstrates ability to reliably perform basic tasks (e.g. retrieving objects from floor) in a variety of human-populated environments (e.g. home, work, school) and to operate and interact safely with people there.

Facts and Figures
Height: 110cm (kneeling mode), 140 cm (upright mode)
Width: 70cm
Depth: 20cm (upright), 80cm (kneeling/resting)
Overall Weight: 40kg
Power source(s): rechargeable high density Lithium-Polymer batteries
6 computers (in full design – currently being operated with 3), with distributed, dedicated functionality allowing redundancy and fail-safe independence
High torque motors and gearboxes
Air compressors and regulators (for arm control and gripping)
iPad control interface for Joanne, including voice control

System components
Physical platform capable of moving around typical environments that Joanne would be in
Communication infrastructure to enable data to come to and from sensors and motors, to decision making centre (‘brain’), social communication, external command/control
Social interface design (‘face’)
Control interface (iPad & voice)
Power systems and safety
Arm/hand mechanism with capability of retrieving variety of objects in any orientation

Robot Morphology (shape/size)
Humanoid structure, consisting of:
Torso (containing computers, most sensors)
Two arms (including grippers – see below) mounted on shoulder
Each gripper consists of a rubber balloon filled with coffee granules. This can be inflated with air, where it is soft and can conform to any shape it is pressed against. When the air is sucked out, the granules ‘lock’ the gripper around the shape allowing it to be picked up. When the arm is moved to the appropriate position the vacuum is removed and the object is released
Head containing an 7” LCD ‘face’ which can display emotions and interact with people, and some sensors
Neck allows head to tilt – similar to human ability, but with much larger range – allowing robot to have head facing backwards
Hip motors, allowing robot to bend at the waist
Single ‘leg’ (mermaid style!), which can bend at the knee and ankle
Two wheels instead of feet
Resting (Stabiliser) wheel extending from front of knee to conserve power.

Future plans
In terms of future development, there are a number of technical and strategic possibilities. Our core strength and aim is research-centered, and that is where our focus will lie.

Research directions
Advanced social interface – can add a recognition detection system with a voice/social aspect, that will autonomously adapt to social situations (currently this is manually initiated via an iPad)
Sensor fusion
Efficient and accurate decision making
Lightweight and accurate ‘limbs’
Increased autonomy and perception – this could be as an advanced navigation system so that Robbie will recognise and avoid obstacles, and adapt to a changing environment

Further functionality
More sensors
Communication with other devices (e.g. household electronics, phone/Skype so that Joanne can instruct Robbie to call people)
New hand types
Outer skin
Re-engineering the existing design to improve reliability and performance within the current design paradigm.