Intel robotic arm image
Credit: Intel

An innovative new research project has begun that aims to create an affordable wheelchair-mounted robotic arm to help paediatric wheelchair users easily perform daily tasks, such as eating and drinking.

Technology giant Intel and multinational professional services company Accenture are supporting an Intel Neuromorphic Research Community (INRC) project led by the Neuro-Biomorphic Engineering Lab at the Open University of Israel in collaboration with ALYN Hospital.

Using funding and technology support from Accenture, as well as Intel’s neuromorphic technology and algorithmic support from Applied Brain Research (ABR), the Israeli research teams will develop a wheelchair-mounted robotic arm to assist patients with spinal injuries in performing daily tasks.

The device will be clinically evaluated and tested with children at ALYN Hospital, an adolescent rehabilitation centre based in Israel.

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According to Intel, this new research project is important because assistive devices can help patients with neuromuscular or spinal cord injuries to carry out daily tasks that might otherwise be difficult for them, such as drinking from a cup, eating with a spoon and reaching for objects.

A 2017 study (Michmizos, Konstantinos P., Hermano Igo Krebs) suggested that wheelchair-mounted robotic arms provide an increased sense of independence for users, and that these assistive tools can reduce the need for caregiver time by up to 41 percent.

However, these assistive robotic devices can be very expensive to produce and purchase due to the high-tech components, Intel notes.

The real-time learning capability of Intel’s neuromorphic research chip, Loihi, shows potential to reduce the cost of creating and operating such devices. By utilising Loihi’s real-time learning, researchers predict they can implement adaptive control to enhance the arm’s functionality, while using affordable parts that could reduce the cost by more than 10 times.

Intel adds that a Loihi-based device could also require less frequent charging, making it more ideal for use in daily life.

Intel robotic arm image
Credit: Intel

Edy Liongosari, Technology Innovation Growth and Strategy Lead and Chief Research Scientist at Accenture, said: “This research project is a powerful demonstration of the impact that neuromorphic computing can have on the development of affordable intelligent assistive devices.

“Making these devices accessible, particularly to such young patients, can have a profound impact on their independence, improving the way they live. We are looking forward to teaming closely with the Open University of Israel researchers, ALYN and Intel, contributing our technical and industry experience to advance this technology for those who need it the most.”

The pioneering assistive robotic arm will undergo clinical testing and evaluation at ALYN Hospital with patients who rely on electric wheelchairs and have motor impairment of their upper extremities. The participants will control the arm using a small, dedicated joystick, and researchers will collect information on the robotic arm’s performance to assess its usefulness.

“We believe that the development of a robotic arm based on neuromorphic computing can be a game-changer for people with disabilities. It could make it easier for them to engage with the community, boost their independence and grant them new employment opportunities,” added Arie Melamed-Yekel, General Manager of ALYNnovation at ALYN. “The expected cost and performance improvements are potentially disruptive to this market.”

If the research project is successful, the research team plans to explore how to produce this assistive robotic arm for wheelchair users.

Intel and Accenture will also continue to collaborate to identify and fund additional neuromorphic research that has the potential to advance the field.

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