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Surprising Science

Baby, You Can Drive My (Robot) Car

Researchers are using robotics to create machines that will allow babies with motor skill challenges to move themselves. Theoretically, this will help their brain development match that of their typically-developing peers.

Article written by guest writer Kecia Lynn

What’s the Latest Development?

Occupational therapy scientists at Ithaca College recently reported in the journal Physiotherapy about their latest project, a kind of mobile apparatus that’s controlled entirely by the baby sitting in it. The WeeBot combines Nintendo Wii technology with robotics to move in the direction the infant leans, and uses sonar to keep it from bumping into things. It was first tested using “five- to nine-month-old, typically developing babies…[who were trained] to drive by having their parents sit in front of them and offer them a toy.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The Ithaca team is part of a larger field of research that focuses on providing disabled children with motion skills at earlier and earlier ages. The belief is that the ability to move independently creates major changes in infants’ brains, and that robots like the Weebot may allow babies with motor skill challenges to “keep up with” their typically-developing peers. There are still some major bugs to work out, but while some think that research should remain confined to university labs, others believe it’s time for commercial companies to jump on board. Physical therapist Cole Galloway suggests that researchers go directly to real-world consumers in search of test subjects: “There’s [an] extra sparkle in kids’ eyes when you hook them up [with a robot].”

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