Disney World is not quite the venue where you'd expect to see top engineering students facing off in an innovative design competition. But at the recently concluded Cornell Cup presented by Intel, 30 teams from 18 different engineering schools showed off prototype products all built around Intel's Atom chip. The real surprise was that fully half the inventions were targeted at the elderly and the disabled. The winner of the competition, along with a check for $10,000 was the Titan team from the University of Pennsylvania that developed a low cost upper body exoskeleton capable of helping someone lift a 40 pound weight. The system could be used for physical therapy or to assist in jobs that require constant heavy lifting. Up until now, most exoskeleton devices have concentrated on the lower body, and they have been very expensive, in the $100,000 range. The Penn team believes that its lightweight rig for the upper body can come to market at a price of several thousand dollars.
Perhaps the most futuristic of the entries was the NIA Wheel from Seattle Pacific University. Simply put, it's a powered wheelchair that is driven by brain signals. The device could be the first solution for those who have no ability to steer a wheelchair with either a joystick or other device. It uses a group of wireless sensors worn on the head to read brain signals. But the team says there's a lot of interactive training involved, a process which can take two months for the user and device to learn how to "read" each other.
A very different approach to powered wheelchairs was the Cyber Physical Systems entry from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. This approach relies on modular sensors that can be added to existing powered wheelchairs. One sensor is capable of preventing collisions with walls or other solid objects. Another set of sensors placed under the foot pads can prevent the chair from going over a significant drop, like stairs or a curb. The team is also developing sensors that will use motion detection cameras like those in Microsoft's Kinect system, and eventually a brain - wheelchair interface.
Two teams came up with robotic arms. A team from Columbia University created the ARM, an Assistive Robotic Manipulator that is cable of being attached to a wheelchair or any other surface and used to pick up objects. The team is working on an interface that recognizes facial gestures .
A team from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, came up with a different ARM, this acronym is for Autonomous Robotic Mechanism. This device is designed to help those who cannot feed themselves. The arm uses machine vision to pick up food from a bowl or plate and then deliver it to the user's mouth even if his head moves during the process.
Among the other entries, a device called Boost, designed by another Columbia University team, that's capable of picking an object off the floor, putting it in a tray and raising it up to the level of the user. Still another Columbia team designed Alfred, a self powered robotic table that could follow you around, and is capable of leveling itself going up a ramp, ideal for carrying that cup of coffee, or bringing in a load of groceries. A team from the University of California at Berkeley designed a robotic shopping cart. The user could instruct it as to what items to get, it would roll down the aisle, reach for the product, put it into a small cart, and bring it back. Another robot, called LEAF from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, holds out the hope of taking some of the pain of yard work. It uses the same kind of face recognition technology that's found in digital cameras to track leaves in a yard and vacuum them up. No bending required.
For the care of patients suffering dementia, a team from the University of Pittsburgh developed Panda Care, a small device loaded with sensors that comes either in the form of a big button or a wristband. The device provides the wearer's location, it has a built in camera, it can call for help, and it can monitor a number of vital signs.
For the visually impaired, bringing Braille into the digital age has been a daunting challenge. There are devices that can display a single line of Braille at a time, but a team from the University of Rochester is in the early stages of creating a system it calls U-Read Braille, which will be able to display a full page of Braille text that can easily be refreshed.
Some of the teams have already been approached about taking their inventions into commercial development. Others are still in the relatively early design stages. But collectively they show that many of today's engineering students have a social conscience. And their devices hold out the promise of more independent living for elderly and disabled populations.
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