Introducing a Therapy Robot for Children

A Spanish research team is developing a therapeutic robot with a focus on helping children during rehabilitation treatments.


A new robot could be used to help children during rehabilitation treatments. Source: DiCYT

In a case of life imitating art, Spanish researchers have seemingly taken a cue from the hit animated flick Big Hero 6. The team is developing a therapeutic robot with a focus on helping children during rehabilitation treatments.

Unlike the sizeable Disney robot, the real-life social therapy device measures a mere 58 centimeters and weighs just four kilos. It is capable of detecting patients’ reactions and even assessing their exercises.

Using UMD’s NAO machine

The researchers, which include members from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and other Spanish institutions, used the University of Maryland’s NAO robot and developed it into a therapy device.  NAO was selected in part because of its joints, which offer the robot a tremendous amount of flexibility.

The goal was to create a robot that children would feel comfortable interacting with on a social level. The scientists assure there is no physical interaction between the robot and patients, meaning children are not at risk. “The main benefit is that the children see the robot as a friend; they like playing with it and they become uninhibited,” says researcher José Carlos Pulido.

The key to the robot’s success is automated learning; it is capable of adapting its therapy approach depending on the client. The team is currently working on algorithms that will take it one step further by allowing the robot to recognize gestures with the help of a camera. The device will essentially be able to pinpoint when a child is smiling, having trouble with an exercise and even if a patient is getting frustrated. 

The robot is capable of doing all of the exercises it asks the child to perform. It starts each session by asking, “Do you want to play with me?” The device then proceeds to show the rehabilitation exercises, which the child is asked to emulate. The robot can even change the color of its eyes to indicate to a patient that they are not performing an exercise properly.

Testing the therapy robot 

The scientists have tested their device at Hospital Universitario Virgen del Rocío, where more than 100 children – including patients with motor difficulties – got to interact with the robot. The general consensus from children and parents was that the compact machine made therapy more engaging. It also helped parents follow their children’s treatment.

In addition to NAO, the researchers are working on an in-house robot called Ursus that could benefit from their technology. With more testing and research, the team says its robots could be ready for hospitals over the next few years. Even though the device is quite small, it could potentially pave the way for other robotic caregivers. 

Source: DiCYT