Cutting edge

October 13, 2000

Unemployment at the age of 36 led to a degree in computer science and a new career in rehabilitation robotics

After more than 20 years' employment in the Staffordshire pottery industry, I was made redundant in 1983 at the age of 36. I decided to train for a change of career and began a degree course in computer science.

My neighbours at that time had a 12-year-old son called Peter with cerebral palsy, who found it impossible to feed himself. As part of my degree course I was required to produce a final-year project, and I decided to try to find a solution to this problem through robotic technology.

I soon realised that many important issues apart from robot development had to be considered. These included how a severely disabled person would control and operate such a complex piece of technology. I completed a prototype that proved to be successful, enabling Peter to eat a meal unaided for the first time in his life.

Since my graduation in 1988, many positive things have happened in the development of the robot, called Handy 1, and in my career development. I am now professor of rehabilitation robotics and head of the rehabilitation robotics research centre at Staffordshire University. Handy 1 is the world's most successful rehabilitation robot, providing independence in eating, drinking, washing, shaving, teeth-cleaning and applying make-up. It is reliable and simple to operate, having a single switch. Through using the system, many users have reported additional benefits in posture, head control, lip closure and coordination.

Taking this important work further, we are developing a mobile base unit for the Handy 1 to enable severely disabled users to achieve greater independence. It will enable users to explore the potential of the system in tasks such as food preparation and household chores.

The centre for rehabilitation robotics is self-financing, employing five research staff including myself. Income to carry out research is generated through grant applications to funding bodies including the European Commission. The centre is involved in European projects aimed at producing daily living aids for disabled people and the elderly. One, called Package, aims to improve the way in which these people open packages and access the information on their labels. The project will improve the lives of three categories of disabled users: people with impaired hand function, people with impaired vision who need help distinguishing between packages with different contents, and people with special dietary needs, who require warnings of unsuitable ingredients in food.

The Package project will develop three new products - Tele-hand, Magic-hand and Power-hand. Tele-hand will incorporate facilities to open packages, describe their contents in electronic speech, print Braille labels and provide warnings of unsuitable food ingredients for users who must monitor their diet. Magic-hand will have facilities to open consumer packages automatically, and Power-hand will be an inexpensive package opening device that will be useful to all members of society.

Another project, Gentle/s, will provide a functional and effective robot for mediating physiotherapy services for older individuals recovering from stroke. It will develop robotic technologies that will open a novel section of the health-care market for exploitation and in doing so will identify real possibilities for short-term and longer-term savings in healthcare costs.

Mike Topping is professor of rehabilitation robotics and head of the rehabilitation robotics research centre at Staffordshire University.


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