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Wheelchair robots are on a roll

It may sound like something out of science fiction, but the ballbot may soon be helping humans move around hospital corridors.

Do you remember the big “hearted” Star Wars droid BB-8 who rolled around on a ball making squealing sounds? 

BB-8 could sure get a move on, over all sorts of terrain and conditions. And soon, the fictional droid could have a real-world counterpart. 

While most current robotic research appears to be focusing on robots with legs, scientists in the United States have made a human-size robot that balances on a ball and can push wheelchairs as smoothly as a human assistant. 

New Scientist reports the so-called ballbot was first developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania in 2004. In its latest form, it has the capability to manoeuvre a wheelchair indoors with “minimal bumpiness for the wheelchair user”. 

“It has smooth motions that are energy efficient, and the fact that it can balance allows it to exert more force to push a heavy system and manoeuvre [with] more agility,” said researcher Cunxi Dai. 

The advancement to the robot came about with the development of control software that enables it to maintain its ball-balancing act while its arms help to automatically adjust the force required to move around a wheelchair and user with a combined weight of up to 79 kilograms. 

The ballbot can automatically move to an assigned location at speeds of about half a metre per second, while avoiding obstacles such as “wet floor” signs and large boxes – if it has already been programmed with information about the location of these obstacles. 

The researchers’ next challenge is to develop an even more advanced ballbot that automatically senses and avoids potential collisions. 

But we’re told even in its current form, the robot adapts its movements to dampen the effects of small collisions while using its arms to steady the wheelchair. 

You can see the ballbot in action here.  


Related reading: New Scientist, CMU 


John Austin

John Austin

Policy and Communications Officer, National Seniors Australia

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