Assistive robotics competition raises awareness among students, engineers

  • March 7, 2013

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The image is centered on a large brown desk. To the left of the desk is a small robotic waiter clothed in a blue suit. The robot is human in appearance and is balding. In front of the table, there is a very mechanical looking robot.In just under a month’s time, hundreds of students and engineers from around the world will descend on the small campus of Trinity College in Connecticut. For many, it will be a culmination of months of work developing a small autonomous robot. In a series of five-minute trials, they will place their robot in an scaled kitchen arena and look on as it works to identify a plate of food in a refrigerator, pick it up, and deliver it across the room to a table where a doll in a wheelchair awaits. At each critical moment, a robot’s success is punctuated by cheers from spectators in the stands.

But success here isn’t trivial, not even for graduate students or professional engineers. The event is known as RoboWaiter, and it is the first international competition in assistive robotics, a growing field that marries robotics technology to assisting individuals with disabilities. The robot tasks are inspired by the need to retrieve food from a refrigerator in the event of an absent caregiver.

Trinity College, a small New England liberal arts college with a strong engineering program, has organized and hosted its Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest since 1994, welcoming hundreds of participants each year to build a robot that autonomously navigates a maze, finds a lit candle, and extinguishes it. Building on that success, the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities (CTCDD) approached organizer and Professor of Engineering David J. Ahlgren in 2006 with an interest in raising awareness and a need for robotic devices that aid those with disabilities. After a few pilot events and iterations, CTCDD and Trinity launched the RoboWaiter contest at the 2009 event.

With each passing year, the event’s impact on participants and organizers continues to grow. Persons with disabilities have become key figures in contestant’s robot designs as they collaborate to address daily needs. First-year engineering students at Trinity begin their studies with a focus on RoboWaiter, while several workshops and symposia have featured leading assistive and rehabilitation robotics researchers. In a 2012 journal article by the contest organizers, they reported survey results from contestants and attendees. One comment from a CTCDD attendee noted, “The RoboWaiter competition teaches students that, through technology, they can help people with disabilities in their own homes. Engineering students come to understand that with increasingly sophisticated devices being developed and produced, persons with disabilities will enjoy happier, more productive lives.”

So as my colleagues and I prepare to welcome teams all over the United States, Israel, China, Indonesia, and many other countries, we share an excitement over this next installment of RoboWaiter and the innovative robots these students have developed. More importantly, though, is the understanding and appreciate they’ll gain for socially responsible engineering, and the imaginative spark that will undoubtedly lead to new assistive robots and technologies for the disabilities community.

The Trinity Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest and RoboWaiter takes place April 6-7 in Hartford, Connecticut. Interested in entering a robot? Registration ends March 20.

David Pietrocola enrolled at Trinity College in 2004 and has been involved with the contest ever since as a contestant, judge, volunteer, and rules writer. In addition to working as a robotics and software engineer, he runs the Robots in DC blog and organizes the DC Robotics Group. Motivated by the RoboWaiter contest, he is developing a commercial assistive robot for persons with disabilities.

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