Students steer robotics research to help the disabled

Students Ben Arvey (left) and Benjamin Narin (right) test a wheelchair that could be controlled by voice commands or eye blinks.

Students Ben Arvey (left) and Benjamin Narin (right) test a wheelchair that could be controlled by voice commands or eye blinks.

Robots have vast potential to empower people with disabilities — and a team of Oregon State students is leading efforts to turn that potential into reality.

Guided by robotics professor Bill Smart, students in the College of Engineering and the University Honors College are pursuing their idea to equip an electric wheelchair with an operating system that can respond to verbal commands or eye blinks. This “smart” wheelchair could be particularly useful for people with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, giving them mobility even when their arms and legs become disabled.

“We want to make it so the wheelchair will autonomously navigate,” says team member Jasper LaFortune. “You just tell it where you want to go, and it will take you there.”

Several students are working on the software needed to make that happen. Cameron Bowie is developing software to create floor maps of homes that can help guide a wheelchair similar to a car’s GPS. LaFortune is working on software to enable robots to mimic the way a person might navigate from room to room.

And Ben Arvey, a Corvallis native, is assisting programmers who use the Robot Operating System (ROS), a popular opensource software infrastructure that’s hosted at Oregon State’s Open Source Lab.

“Robotics has practical benefits for people,” says project leader Benjamin Narin. “We want to make someone’s life better.”

Robotics degrees create a promising future for students
Oregon State is one of only a few universities in the nation to offer master’s and doctoral degree programs in robotics.
These programs, which launched last fall, train students to build, create, repair and operate the very latest robot models.
Jonathan Hurst, associate professor of mechanical engineering, says Oregon State robotics graduates are already being
hired at the jobs of their choice, with a 100 percent hiring rate.

Top-notch robotics research facility in the works
Graf Hall, one of the many locations for Oregon State’s School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (MIME), is in the process of becoming a hub for all things robotics. This renovation will create a space for MIME students to develop robots and conduct research. Robotics professor Bill Smart says the updated facility will be a collaborative space for Oregon State’s robotics group to target real-world problems.

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