Robotic serpent will help the disabled

March 16, 2001

A snakelike robotic device that can give disabled people greater independence has been developed at Staffordshire University.

The Flexibot was built by a team at the Centre for Rehabilitation Robotics, led by Mike Topping. Professor Topping said that Flexibot could perform an array of tasks around the home such as prepare and cook a meal, wash and shave a person's face, or even vacuum clean carpets.

The inspiration for the device came from a neighbour, Peter Higginbottom, who has cerebral palsy. Professor Topping felt that a highly mobile device would benefit people who, like Mr Higginbottom, have limited movement. Mr Higginbottom already uses a robot, Handy 1, designed by the centre.

The multi-jointed Flexibot, powered by motors situated within the robot's tube-like body, could move around a house like a caterpillar, clamping itself to a series of pre-arranged portals along the walls, ceiling or floor.

When the Flexibot, which is able to adjust its length automatically to suite a particular task, reaches the correct location it then clamps itself firmly to its portal to perform any pre-programmed or direct control tasks with its flexible arm.

The concept is based partly on robotic engineering devised as part of the space programme.

Professor Topping said: "Scientists haven't realised the full potential of robotic technology, but I believe this system will provide a breakthrough.

"The problem with traditional robot design is that machines are developed that take up a lot of floor space and this poses problems for people who are wheelchair-users for example. What is really good about the Flexibot is that it doesn't need floor space because it moves independently around the house by crawling along the walls or ceiling."

Flexibot has industrial potential as well. With the appropriate attachments, the robot could be programmed to inspect bridges, mow lawns and tend gardens, or even dive to great depths to work on submerged equipment and submarines.

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