Wednesday, January 20, 2016 NIH-Funded Project Looks at Using a Robot to Help Children Improve Mobility Could a 22-inch robot help children with disabilities improve mobility—and, in turn, overall development? A team of researchers that includes a physical therapist (PT) is hoping to find out. An interdisciplinary team from the University of Delaware that includes Cole Galloway, PT, PhD, recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue a project they're calling GEAR—Grounded Early Adaptive Rehabilitation. The Delaware team that includes Galloway, robotics experts, computational linguists, and engineers, will collaborate with researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Imaging Science, according to an article in Delaware Online. The idea behind GEAR is to program a commercially available robot to serve as a kind of cheerleader, monitor, and coach for children with motor disabilities. The researchers hope to develop a robot that not only can encourage these children to engage in certain activities, but can learn and adapt to each child's movement patterns, and provide customized lessons that fit individual needs. The team is using NAO, a 22-inch, programmable, bipedal robot developed by Aldebaran Inc, a company that describes its products as "kindly robots in humanoid form." And the robot is pretty cute—right down to its button-like eyes and tiny fingers. But looks aren't everything. According to Galloway, the team faces a significant challenge: namely, getting the thing to keep up with a toddler—even one with a mobility disability. He says the project is "Mars Rover-level" in terms of complexity. First, NAO needs to observe and learn how children without disabilities move, which in turn means it will need to have a high degree of mobility itself. Then the robot will have to compare that data with the observed movements of children with a disability and target its encouragement and instruction to deficit areas—all under the watchful programming eye of a real human being, that is. Galloway is excited about the project and about the opportunity for the physical therapy profession to be represented in a major interdisciplinary research project. "As physical therapists, we're concerned with social mobility," Galloway said. "This project is interesting because we can apply this concern to a research setting to hopefully see some very practical results. I think it will help to put us on the map in terms interdisciplinary research." Naturally, Galloway is concerned about what happens with the robot project after—and outside of—the lab. As the founder of GoBabyGo!, an initiative that invites people to adapt kids' ride-on toys into mobility devices using easily available materials, Galloway is particularly interested in how lessons from the GEAR project can be applied widely, and cheaply, to the broadest possible range of users. "This is a great $10,000 robot," Galloway said. "But if, when it's all over, if we've only figured out how to make a $10,000 robot work in a lab, what have we done? It's important that we find out the possibilities, and then see what we can do to create something that costs $100, or even less." To that end, he hopes to get funding to sponsor a separate-but-related project that will allow a postdoctoral researcher to translate the lessons of the GEAR project into more affordable applications. This isn't the first time the NAO robot was used as a potential aid in physical therapy: in April, PT in Motion News reported on researchers in Spain who were hoping to use NAO as a "social therapist" designed to "enliven rehabilitation processes." Want to read more of Cole Galloway's thoughts research vs the real world in physical therapy? Check out his insights on turning inspiration into action in "Taking the Leap," part of APTA's online series, "Physical Therapy: A Profession in Transformation."