It's been a long struggle, but researchers are finally developing robots that can begin to navigate human environments with the same agility as humans themselves. This is important, because the first use of these new technologies will be as medical devices. Mobile robotics will be crucial in helping those who find it hard to navigate human environments due to injury or disability.
Injured or disabled people have a tough time because a lot of the world is not designed to accommodate them. It's tough to say, but things like the height of doorknobs, the text on your computer screen, even things like the placement of buttons on elevators can all work against people who can't walk, stand, or see. Robots are getting much better as seeing and moving in the world around them—and in the process, they will be able to greatly assist those who can't.
Exoskeletons for Human Mobility
Robots still aren't great at walking on their own, but they're proving to be pretty great at helping people walk. This year, a medical exoskeleton known as Phoenix debuted with the ability to walk at over a mile per hour for up to four continuous hours, using only a single charge. It essentially replaces a wheelchair for many individuals. This is important, because constant sitting can actually exacerbate spinal injuries or cause secondary effects.
With more companies entering the field, innovation and competition will eventually lower the price of medical exoskeletons until they're widely available. More importantly, a medical review board recently ordered a health insurance provider to begin covering the cost of exoskeletons for their patients. In short, exoskeletons might become widely available much sooner than you think.
Machine Vision for the Sight-Impaired
It's difficult to get around the world when you can't see. Even systems like Braille have their difficulties—try to print Harry Potter in Braille, for example and the first book turns into 56 volumes. Machines also need a form of vision to describe the world, and a form of this technology may one day restore sight to the blind.
A new wearable technology uses machine vision to literally describe the world to vision-impaired individuals. It takes the form of a pair of glasses with cameras mounted on each side, combined with a pair of bone-conduction headphones and a powerful mobile computing chip. The device, which is still in the prototype phase, is powerful enough to recognize faces, read text, and describe objects. This, and devices like it, could be a powerful tool to help vision-impaired people to navigate the environment.
Advanced Prosthetics Replicate a Sense of Touch
Limb replacements are some of the most widely-discussed applications for medical robotics. We're still nowhere near replicating the strength, range of motion, or sense of touch as pertains to robotic limbs—but we're getting there.
Increasingly, it's a problem of integration, rather than replication. One company makes a robotic arm that provides a sense of touch using implanted electrodes. Another company makes a robotic hand that's delicate enough to sort tomatoes by ripeness, using the concept of soft robotics. Other limbs emphasize dexterity or strength. Limitations in materials and battery life still prevent us from combining all of these useful concepts into a single limb.
What Does the Long-Term Look Like?
We've already come a long way, but there's still much to learn before robotics is widely used in medicine. With that said, robotic assistance is already beginning to improve the lives of the injured and the disabled in immeasurable ways. Even something as simple as being able to stand and look people in the eye has truly tremendous implications for well-being and self-esteem. For these abilities and more, we look to robotics as a good near-term solution.
In the long-term, robots won't be the be-all and end-all for injured and disabled people, we hope. Medical science is busily inventing everything from spinal cord repair to limb regrowth. Robotic assistance isn't a cure in this scenario. Rather, robots are stopgap. We can use robots as a way to improve peoples' daily lives while we wait for even bigger medical breakthroughs.