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Letting the robot lead

Pioneering technology to improve stability in older adults

By Dana Goldman

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Emory and Georgia Tech scientists are fine-tuning Cody, a therapeutic robot, to dance with older people to help improve balance and increase walking speed.

People who struggle with mobility might eventually head to the dance floor—with a robot partner. A new $2 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation is helping Emory and Georgia Tech scientists fine-tune a therapeutic robot named Cody, enabling it to dance with a human with the same sensitivity to touch and pressure as an expert dance teacher. 

The study builds on previous research by Emory researcher Madeleine Hackney, showing that partner dance is an effective way to help older adults and people with Parkinson's disease (PD) improve their balance and increase their walking speed. Hackney, who is supported by a career development award at the Atlanta VA Medical Center's Rehabilitation R&D Center of Excellence, is an assistant professor of geriatrics in Emory's medical school and a co-investigator on the new study. 

"What happens in a lot of older folks and some of those with PD is that they have decreased ability to shift their weight effectively," she says. "Over time, their stride length may shorten and they may stop lifting their toes when they walk. What we want to do with the therapy is help them regain some of the mobility they had in the past. If the robot can respond to the balance needs of someone who is unstable, then it could be helpful in safeguarding that person." And since robots don't exhibit the idiosyncracies of humans—for example, getting distracted by other dancers or flustered when forgetting a step—they may provide more consistent monitoring of balance instability than a human partner.

But teaching Cody the robot to dance expertly with a partner, especially one who has an unstable posture, is an ambitious goal, says principal investigator Lena Ting of the biomedical engineering department jointly administered between Emory and Georgia Tech. It requires interdisciplinary expertise in the mechanics of dance, sensory motor theory, robotics, and engineering. In addition, Ting says, "Normally with industrial robots you don't want to touch them—they're strong and dangerous. They don't feel their environment, and they don't know you're there. But a dance instructor is aware and constantly adapting to how the other individual is dancing."

So over the study's duration, Ting, Hackney, and two additional Tech researchers will not just be coding, programming, and analyzing the movements and tactile sensitivity of Cody.  They and others also will be dancing with Cody to see firsthand how the robot responds to different abilities and movement styles. In four years when the grant concludes, they hope that Cody will be able to adapt
to the skill level of its partner while doing a box-step—all through a simple connection between the person's hand and Cody's mechanical arm. 

Ting says this study is a first step in building robots that can partner with humans not just on the dance floor but also in rehabilitative environments. "The big-picture goal is to be able to demonstrate that it's possible to have robots interact fluidly with humans in a very physical way."

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