robotic end effector holding human hand
The Stretch robot, manufactured by Hello Robot

Students Show Creativity in Robot Competition

Students in the Grainger College of Engineering, Gies College of Business, and College of Applied Health Sciences emerged victorious in the Stretch Robot Pitch Competition sponsored by TechSAge in collaboration with Hello Robot and P&G. A collaboration between the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, TechSAge works to understand the needs of, and develop supportive technologies for, people aging with long-term vision, hearing, and mobility disabilities. TechSAge is funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). Wendy Rogers, professor of kinesiology and community health and a co-director of TechSAge, said the research center has sponsored other, more broadly focused design competitions in the past.

“This year, we decided to focus on using Stretch, a robot with which we’ve been working in the McKechnie Family LIFE Home,” she said. “In a meeting with P&G, we learned that they’re very interested in robotics in the home to help people use their products, so we asked students to pitch an idea for Stretch that would help adults with vision or hearing disabilities to use P&G products.”

Stretch can be moved and manipulated with a game controller to sense, reach for, and grasp objects to support people in performing a wide range of tasks. It is manufactured by Hello Robot, a company founded by Charlie Kemp, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech, and Aaron Edsinger, former robotics director at Google.

Modifying the robot
Gies College of Business graduate student Ilalee Harrison James has been serving as a mentor to Grainger College of Engineering sophomore Maya Grant in the soft robotics lab of Holly Golecki, teaching professor of bioengineering, through a program Golecki started to introduce robotics to students from underrepresented groups. Harrison James attended the introductory session for the competition, where she learned about some of the robotics research that took place at Georgia Tech and led to the development of Stretch.

“When I was introduced to this opportunity, I got really excited. In the lab, I asked, ‘Who wants to work on this?’ Maya immediately said, ‘I do!’ It has given us a chance to work together as peers,” she said.

They began to brainstorm about challenges older adults face in the home and decided to tackle the issue of opening medication bottles. From her involvement with drone research, Grant had become familiar with jamming grippers, which consist of flexible containers of granular material, such as ground coffee. When air is added to the container, it becomes pliant enough to surround an object of any shape or size. When air is removed, the granular material compresses around the object, allowing for it to be held and moved.

“It’s really affordable for prototyping and it’s very effective,” Grant said. “The malleability of the grains can go around anything and the vacuum provides a very strong hold. It will be really good for picking up bottles.”

Added Harrison James, “When you consider Stretch’s gripping end effector, there’s so much that can be done with the two in combination.”

For their successful effort, Harrison James and Grant received $1000 and 20 hours of access to McKechnie LIFE Home facilities and resources to develop and test their design. Harshal Mahajan, assistant director of research in the McKechnie Family LIFE Home, will provide consulting support for the project. At present, they are assembling a team to address bot mechanical and software needs, and are brainstorming ways to further improve their design.

Honorable mentions
A student in the community health doctoral program and a team of students from electrical and computer engineering submitted proposals that earned honorable mentions in the competition.

Community health graduate student Megan Bayles, who is a member of Wendy Rogers’ Human Factors and Aging Laboratory, saw the competition as an opportunity to apply all that she’s been learning over the past three years. Rather than designing an end effector for Stretch, she designed a universal handle to modify items that Stretch might be employed to retrieve. “I wanted to make something that you could put on any tool—kitchen implements, toothbrushes-so that Stretch could pick it up and use it,” she said. An avid scuba diver, Bayles was inspired in her design by the many crustaceans she’s seen, sea cucumbers and starfishes, whose flexible mouths can fit around anything.

Speaking on behalf of the team from the Grainger College of Engineering, all of whom are members of Katie Driggs-Campbell’s Human-Centered Autonomy Lab, Shuijing Liu said her group decided to take on the challenge of using Stretch to help people with vision impairments to navigate indoor spaces. “Because of their limited perception, people with impaired vision may fail to see obstacles as they move around indoor spaces, or may become spatially disoriented and not know where they are within a space,” she said. Her group, which also includes electrical and computer engineering students Aamir Hasan, Kaiwen Hong, Eric Liang, Justin Lin, and Sean Yao, will use virtual home simulations to develop their concept, but plan to test their final design within the McKechnie Family LIFE Home.

Bayles and Liu’s group each received $500 for their honorable mention proposals.


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