Robots running on the power of thought

Robotics may transform the medical field once again by offering new communication solutions for paralyzed patients.

Swiss robotics researchers are currently testing a new line of robots that can, quite literally, read human minds. The semi-autonomous devices record brain activity and use the data to power their next movement.

According to ScienceNow, this is not the first example of brain-machine interface systems. The technology has previously been used to control cursors, prosthetics and smaller robots using the power of conscious thought. But biomedical engineer, Jose del Millan, is working on an entirely new approach to the technology.

Millan's chief goal is to develop brain-interface systems that do not require implanting chips in the body. This simpler, less-invasive strategy may have significant potential for the medical community. In particular, it may give paralyzed patients a new-found ability to communicate with others.

But before these revolutionary devices can transform industries, Millan is hard at work testing and honing the technology at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. According to SmartPlanet, the research team is using a modified version of a commerically available robot called Robotino. The three-wheeled device is already capable of maneuvering in tight spaces and sensing obstacles with infrared sensors, but Millan and his colleagues have equipped it with telepresence capabilities.

A laptop running Skype over a wireless connection is mounted on top of the robot. This utility allows the human to see through the eyes of the robot as it makes its journey. But perhaps more importantly, it could allow bed-bound patient to communicate with other humans as their thoughts are communicated to the device through electrodes.

"This opens a new possibility for families," Millan told ScienceNow.

Paralyzed patients could potentially keep in touch with relatives at home using the robot as an intermediary. But first, researchers need to test the communication ranges that their technology supports.

According to ScienceNow, a recent six-week trial has generated impressive results. After weeks of hour-long training sessions with man and machine, several patients were able to maintain effective communication at a range of more than 60 miles. By the end of the study, they were also able to navigate the robot to targets around the laboratory for as long as 12 minutes.

As the technology matures, Millan is hoping to expand its application to tasks as complex as driving a car. Only time will tell, but this case is already intriguing and inspiring robotics engineers who could take the concept to previously unimaginable heights.

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