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Robot helps to get MS sufferer back to work

Robot helps to get MS sufferer back to work An innovative robot design is helping MS sufferer Lena Kredel to participate in working life again, enabling her to work independently. And her feedback is also making an important contribution to optimising the robot.

Lena Kredel suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS). She cannot move her arms and legs, but nevertheless she is working. The literary scholar comes from Bad Segeberg, Germany, and is undertaking an apprenticeship as a librarian at the University of Bremen. Lena is using a service robot 'FRIEND' and its Schunk lightweight arm as a tool to support everyday tasks to allow autonomous environmental interaction. Now, the robot specialists from the Institute for Automation Technology (IAT) Bremen have modified the mechatronic helper so that Lena can independently catalogue the books in the university's library.

The abbreviation 'FRIEND' stands for 'functional robot arm with user-friendly interface for disabled people'. The electrically powered wheelchair is equipped with a monitor, multiple sensor systems and, as a central element, a lightweight arm from Schunk. With a joystick at her head and via voice recognition, Lena controls her assisting robot to record books with standard software for libraries using an internet browser for research. Over the course of time, FRIEND really did become a true friend for Lena. Using FRIEND has brought a great deal of pleasure, and it is obvious that Lena enjoys the freedom and independence from the system.

IAT Bremen has been conducting research on robot-supported assisting systems since 1997. The solution used by Lena is the fourth generation. The system is based on a concept of shared autonomy. Things that can be independently solved by the robot, are done by the robot itself. If it reaches its limits, the user intervenes for correcting the gripping position or if unforeseen disturbances occur. According to Torsten Heyer, project manager at IAT, presently about 95% of all processes can be solved this way without any external help.

To ensure perfect teamwork, the environmental conditions are autonomously recorded via a three-dimensional camera and an infrared camera that are positioned over the head of the user. When Lena starts the system, the camera locates the bookshelf, the books and the storage position automatically. Then, the Schunk lightweight arm approaches the determined position autonomously. Markers and coloured markings are used by the system as a point of reference. The control of the whole gripping system is carried out by Lena. For this purpose, the system has been equipped with numerous features that allow assessment and control of the gripping process. A camera on the robot gripper continuously transmits live pictures of the gripping process. These are immediately visible for the user on a monitor. At the same time the camera can be used as a reading lens that makes even small print readable. If the system should approach its limits, Lena Kredel intervenes.

Versatile lightweight arm
The central element of the assisting robot is the LWA 3.10 lightweight arm from Schunk - a modularly integrated gripping arm with seven degrees of freedom. The system uses three degrees for orientation, three for positioning and one for bypassing obstacles. In contrast to classic industrial robots, the lightweight arm is designed for automating the direct environment of a human. This includes inspection and assembly tasks and also the use of assistance systems.

A permanently high repeatability of ±0.1mm ensures optimum conditions for precise gripping operations. The maximum payload of the gripping arm is 10kg. At a battery-servable power supply of 24V, the average current requirement is below 3A. If no socket should be available, or if the system is used completely mobile, the assistance robot may be self-sufficiently operated by a standard wheelchair battery for about two to three hours. In order to exclude the risk of injury, IAT has equipped the assistance robots with force-moment and spacial monitoring sensors.

As the drive amplifier and controller are directly integrated in the lightweight arm, the system does not require a control cabinet. The complete control and regulation electronics are integrated in the joint drive. Position, speed, and torque can be flexibly adjusted. With integrated intelligence, universal communication interfaces and cable technology for data transmission and power supply, the arm can be quickly and easily integrated into existing concepts. Moreover, it is controlled via an embedded personal computer.

The lightweight arm is programmed via the Schunk interface. The individual movement strategies were developed by IAT. According to IAT's Christos Fragkopoulos, programming has been easy: "We control the speed or current via the interface. How the modules work with each other depends on the individual program."

When Lena first started using FRIEND, the pure handling time for an individual book was 17 minutes. Now, with more experience, she requires between five and seven minutes for handling and 15 minutes for cataloging. In the next phase of development, reliability will be increased. The aim is to achieve a success rate of 99.9% over the course of time.

According to Heyer, the 'ReIntegraRob' project sponsored by the Integration Office in Bremen with €400,000, shows the hidden potentials of assisting robots. And as Lena says herself, "FRIEND has been a real stroke of luck for me."
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