Service dogs, invaluable companions providing assistance to physically impaired individuals, are an elite and desired breed. Their presence in a home can make everyday tasks that are difficult -- if not impossible -- achievable, enhancing the quality of life for the disabled.
Yet with a cost averaging $16,000 per dog -- not to mention the two years of training required to hone these skills -- the demand for these canines' exceeds their availability.
But what if these duties could be accomplished with an electronic companion that provides the same efficiency at a fraction of the cost?
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have engineered a biologically inspired robot that mirrors the actions of sought-after service dogs. Users verbally command the robot to complete a task and the robot responds once a basic laser pointer illuminates the location of the desired action.
For instance, if a person needs an item fetched, that individual would normally command a service dog to do so and then gesture with their hands toward the location. The service robot mimics the process, with the hand gesture replaced by aiming the laser pointer at the desired item. Employing this technology, users can accomplish basic yet challenging missions such as opening doors, drawers and retrieving medication.
"It's a road to get robots out there helping people sooner," said Charlie Kemp, Georgia Tech Department of Biomedical Engineering. "Service dogs have a great history of helping people, but there's a multi-year waiting list. It's a very expensive thing to have. We think robots will eventually help to meet those needs."
This technology was achieved with four-legged authenticity. Kemp and graduate student Hai Nguyen worked closely with the team of trainers at Georgia Canines for Independence (GCI) to research the command categories and interaction that is core to the relationship between individuals and service dogs.
Betty, a Golden Retriever, was studied to understand her movements and relationship with commands. Key to the success is Betty's ability to work with a towel attached to a drawer or door handle, which allows her to use her mouth for such actions as opening and closing. The robot was then successfully programmed to use the towel in a similar manner. Her handlers were thrilled at the potential benefits of the technology.
"The waiting list for dogs can be five to seven years," said Ramona Nichols, executive director of Georgia Canines for Independence. "It's neat to see science happening but with a bigger cause; applying the knowledge and experience we have and really making a difference. I'm so impressed. It's going to revolutionize our industry in helping people with disabilities."
In total, the robot was able to replicate 10 tasks and commands taught to service dogs at GCI -- including opening drawers and doors -- with impressive efficiency. Other successes included opening a microwave oven, delivering an object and placing an item on a table.
"As robotic researchers we shouldn't just be looking at the human as an example," Kemp said. "Dogs are very capable at what they do. They have helped thousands of people throughout the years. I believe we're going to be able to achieve the capabilities of a service dog sooner than those of a human caregiver."
While the robot may not be able to mirror the personality and furry companionship of a canine, it does have other benefits.
"The robot won't require the same care and maintenance," Kemp said. "It also won't be distracted by a steak."