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Darwin is a robot physical therapy assistant to help kids with cerebral palsy

Why it matters to you

Like any kid with homework, kids with cerebral palsy sometimes need encouragement to do their physical therapy. Robots like Darwin can help.

Could robots have a future helping kids with pathologies like cerebral palsy, a condition that often involves impaired muscle coordination and other disabilities? Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology think so.

They are investigating the use of pint-sized robots in pediatric therapy, specifically to encourage children to play an active role in physical therapy.

“We’re designing socially interactive robots that can engage children with disabilities in therapy activities, performed in the home environment,” professor Ayanna Howard, who leads the Darwin project, told Digital Trends. “Therapy is designed to help children in achieving their developmental milestones — whether a child with cerebral palsy, child with autism spectrum disorder, or a child recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Our robot is designed to function in the home, to supplement services provided by a human clinician, by engaging with them in therapy exercises just as a clinician does — interacting with them, monitoring their performance, and encouraging them with both motivational and corrective feedback.”

Ayanna Howard with her robot.

In experiments carried out by Howard and her colleagues, 3D-motion trackers monitored the subjects’ movements as Darwin offered encouragements while movements were performed — as well as demonstrating them when they were not performed correctly. With the exception of one isolated case, the robot had a significantly positive impact on kids’ physical activity.

“We are currently running a number of pilots using the technology in a few clinics and homes of children with cerebral palsy,” Howard continued. “Our current pilots show that children with CP are able to successfully follow the therapy protocols and guidance provided by their robot playmates.”

The next goal, she said, is to implement a long-term pilot program of two months to evaluate the robots’ full potential. Once the effectiveness of the bot-aided therapy is validated, the technology will then be ready for commercialization.

While it’s not being viewed as a replacement for human physical therapists, as it serving as an additional tool for practitioners could turn out to be beneficial. After all, what kid didn’t dream of having his or her own robot pal?