Robots are becoming more and more advanced while handling tasks to help those in need. A team of researchers at the University of Washington has created a robotic system that is capable of feeding those who cannot do so themselves.
Corresponding author Siddhartha Srinivasa, the Boeing Endowed Professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, said, ‘Being dependent on a caregiver to feed every bite every day takes away a person’s sense of independence. Our goal with this project is to give people a bit more control over their lives.’
The amazing robotic feeding system is highly-precise. However, that is not what is the most awesome thing about it; it is the fact that it can be retrofitted to the person’s wheelchair thus enabling them to feed themselves whenever they need to be fed. However, building such a system was not simple.
Co-author Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee, a postdoctoral research associate in the Allen School, said, ‘When we started the project we realized: There are so many ways that people can eat a piece of food depending on its size, shape or consistency. How do we start? So we set up an experiment to see how humans eat common foods like grapes and carrots.’
The team studied a group of volunteers that were asked to feed a mannequin by making use of a fork that was affixed to a sensor, measuring how much of force did each volunteer use. Bhattacharjee said, ‘People seemed to use different strategies not just based on the size and shape of the food but also how hard or soft it is. But do we actually need to do that? We decided to do an experiment with the robot where we had it skewer food until the fork reached a certain depth inside, regardless of the type of food.’
According to Srinivasa, ‘Many engineering challenges are not picky about their solutions, but this research is very intimately connected with people. If we don’t take into account how easy it is for a person to take a bite, then people might not be able to use our system. There’s a universe of types of food out there, so our biggest challenge is to develop strategies that can deal with all of them.’
The basic idea is to improve the robot up to the point where people can use it to have their lunch or dinner without any assistance. However, the team has said that the objective is not to replace the caregivers but rather to assist them. For instance, the caregiver can set up the plate and perform other tasks while the patient eats. A recent study focused on this research has been published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.