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Advances in health and medicine.
Marjorie Bekaert Thomas
Advances in health and medicine.
Children's Health Channel
Reported September 5, 2009

Babies Drive Robots -- In-Depth Doctor's Interview

Cole Galloway, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware in Newark, talks about using robotics to give mobility to children with physically limiting conditions.

What made you want to work with the area of babies and robots?

Cole Galloway: As a pediatric physical therapist, I know that if you have a child born with a significant mobility problem they will wait three to six years to get into power mobility. The reasons? Either we don’t think that younger kids have the ability to learn to drive, or there are safety concerns. A typically developing toddler needs their hand held while they are mobile in the community—their mobility demands a lot of supervision. This is no different for a young child with power mobility.

A few years back, Dr. Sunil Agrawal in the University of Delaware’s Department of Mechanical Engineering approached me to see if there was any research that his small autonomous robots and my babies could be involved in. He was an expert at rehabilitation robotic—so I agreed to visit his lab.   There I saw a little red robot following a ‘mommy’ robot, which was being driven by a joystick from an experimenter. The little robot was following the mommy robot without hitting any obstacles. My lab was just completing a study looking at how newly-reaching infants interact with joysticks. The data from this study along with the knowledge of the impact of mobility on development and the existing gap between when children with mobility problems begin to fall behind in development and when they get power mobility generated an ‘ah ha’ moment. I can remember turning to Sunil and saying, that if young babies will actually play with the joystick and not be afraid of it, we’ve got the first robotic-enhanced power chair for infants – putting them in power mobility years ahead of what is currently done.

So the idea was born, now the hard part. The idea looks good on paper, we can probably even get grant money for it, but will the babies do it? We brought the babies into the Early Learning Center on the University of Delaware campus, a large child care center set up for research, education and clinical training. We set the first child in our device, which we called ‘UD1’, and he cried like crazy! Lucky for us, we didn’t stop there as from then on, very few infants have had any difficulties.

The first project was with typically developing infants who were 6 months of age. Let’s say you are the baby using UD1, this is the way it goes. You sit down, you see the joystick, you grab it and pull it to your mouth, and away you go!
The reaction that you have is just like if you, as an adult, sat down at your computer, you start to type, and all of a sudden, you start flying over Philadelphia. You would think, ‘What in the….? What is happening! I must be doing this.’ You might stop and check it out. You might type again, and you’re flying again.

That reaction is exactly what we see in the babies. They pull it to their mouth and their environment moves. These little ones appear very sensitive to the cause and effect relationship between joystick movement and UD1 movement. They realize very quickly that the joystick somehow relates to their movement, and that’s the hook we use to start training. From there we begin showing them how to drive in certain directions as well as giving them ample time to drive around and explore however they like.
We next question was ‘can we turn this into a quantitative, fundable scientific endeavor?’ It’s going to be cool – babies driving robots – that alone is going to get people interested. But equally important is whether we can actually quantify their mobility and the effect of that mobility on their development. If so, can we go even further to make this project meaningful for children and families?  That was the first leg of this journey– getting babies and robots together and quantifying the effect on their driving ability and their overall development.

Why is it important to provide mobility to these special needs infants?

Galloway: If you think about what mobility provides you in your daily life as an adult, it becomes very easy to see that mobility is at the heart of many things you hold most important – I have to get up, I have to get moving to go to the bathroom, I have to get moving to go to my job, I have to get moving to go to social functions, to fix a meal, to move across the room and meet new people and explore new places – and to do it whenever and wherever I want, indoors or out, every day or night, all day, my whole life.

What if I didn’t have that mobility? Life would be very different. For a baby or toddler, it’s hard to over-estimate how much exploration via mobility provides them because it is the key to their learning about objects, locations, people as well as more abstract ideas such as ‘self’ and ‘others’ – that I’m a ‘something’, and you’re a ‘something’, and we’re separate. That takes exploration via crawling and walking. Once you’re mobile, the whole world changes.  When children gain mobility, the family cat runs to hide, bananas find their way into the DVD player and parents begin to experience the ‘joy of mobility’ – 24 -7! The inside of the infant is changing as well, a more complex and wonderful independence is emerging within baby.  Quantitatively, we have relatively strong evidence that mobility is a causal factor in increases in cognition, perception and language during early childhood for those children with typical mobility – obvious a lack of mobility is going to have serious effects on infants and their families.

What happens to a child who doesn’t have that mobility a couple of years down the road?

Galloway: We don’t have enough research to say for sure. The flip side of the mobility suggests, of course, that immobility is bad. In animal models, immobility is bad for connective tissue, muscles, and the brain. In young humans, we simply haven’t studied immobility very much.  We don’t need to over research immobility—we need to err on the side of immobility being bad. Clearly society feels immobility is bad. We provide mobility to seniors, and adults with injuries and disease. 

For infants with mobility impairments, we need the community to come together, to change this health care gap, and it’s a gap that can change. It’s not overwhelming to solve. It is overwhelming to consider the impact of every minute of every day for the next several years of children who are immobile sitting passively.  Human beings need enriched environments. Societies want to provide enriched environments.  That’s the foundation that we stand on.

What’s the rationale for providing mobility? It’s partly science and partly the human experience of having children, stopping to observe children and understanding that children are typically hyper-active for a reason. Why do kids need to sleep a lot?  They are growing bodies and brains, and they are also active learners all day long.  Our communities have signs that say, ‘Caution, children playing,’ not ‘Caution, kids hanging out in a chair watching everybody else play.’

My closing argument to audiences of all types is simply: now that you know the problem of early mobility, what are you going to do? The response we’ve had suggests that every component of our society can plug in. There’s something for everyone. I get asked a lot if this is a small project or a big project. Can it get too big? I don’t think it can. People that are interested in policy are interested in this. Our infants and toddlers in the program are going to grow up and will go to school. That’s really going to push those schools. It’s going to push the community to say, ‘How much do we really care about providing daily mobility to everybody?’

The study is part robotics and part quantitative science and part listening to our families.  Our families, teachers and therapist tell us a lot about what we need to study next. Does mobility lead to “bad” behavior or does it lead to typically developing behavior; does immobility lead to “good” behavior because a child doesn’t “get into trouble” engaging his/her environment?

What are some of the parameters of the study?

Galloway: Our largest study to date is a study looking specifically at how typically developing infants starting at six months old interacted with the robot-enhanced device. Could we train typically developing infants to drive directionally several months before crawling and walking typically emerge, and would the early mobility result in advanced developmental scores? That data strongly suggests yes to both of these questions. Alongside that, we invited two or three special needs families to start helping us get pilot data. Andrew and his family were one of the first that we were able to interact with, and he and his family have pushed us in the direction that we really want to go. He interacted with the robot and did great starting at seven months. At seven months, he was about on par cognitively. We were interested in tracking his cognitive progress before and after the training. By 12 months, he was at a 16 month cognitive level. That’s what the literature would suggest happens in typical development.  Now we need large group studies of special needs kids to see if this cognitive bump can be generalized.  The next study is a full-blown study of special needs kids with the robotics that allow us to eliminate a big barrier; the initial barrier of safety.

How do you use the robotics, specifically?

Galloway: It was very important that Dr. Agrawal and I, use ‘reality-based’ robotic solutions, so what we needed were simple solutions to specific barriers. The robot can’t run over other people. Dr. Agrawal came back and said we can do that. It’s already housed with infrared sonar-sensors that will sense when an obstacle, either static or dynamic, a pole or a playmate is there, and it’s able to not only stop Andrew from running over the child or a kitchen cabinet, it will calculate the free space to the left and the right, and it will drive around the obstacle. That’s already in the robotics that we’ve used.

Developmentally inspired robotics is interesting to a lot of different people. It’s interesting from the university’s standpoint, it’s interesting from the entrepreneurial aspects, but it was driven by, what barriers do we need to eliminate to get babies safely mobile all day, every day? That’s really what we come back to time and time again. Does this further the cause to get Andrew and other infants all over the world into their communities?

Where do you see this technology going in the future?

Galloway: This has taught me to not let go of dreams, which sounds incredibly hokey from a scientist’s point of view. Scientific training is not usually undertakent to “fulfill your very essence’. You get into it to do good research and to potentially help people, but you never envision that a project will drop into your lap, and begin to push you emotionally as well as professionally. For example, the future of the project came from Andrew got too large for the robot. Andrew was sitting there literally looking at us as if to day, ‘I don’t have a robot to drive, you need to find me a bigger chair’.  We found a donor chair, and his training continued. Now, he wants a chair at his home because that’s an enriched environment and it’s much better than laboratory training. We have to find a way to design and fabricate devices that can actually fit into car trunks so that families don’t have to buy large vans to transport their kids’ chairs. We’re working on that.

Could I have envisioned this? No, I couldn’t have envisioned the people contacting us from all over the world asking, ‘When can I get my child into this? I’ll buy one.’ I didn’t envision policy people and advocacy people contacting us saying, ‘When you get an inertia of people of your community, when you get 10 or 15 kids in power chairs, you must come to D.C., you have got to do your march on Washington, you’ve got make your presence known in Washington.’

We enjoy contacts from moms and lawyers and entrepreneurs and other scientists that are interested because again, the mission has turned from a linear research project to a mission of closing this health care gap. It won’t get done with science alone. It’s got to be with policy and a ground swell from the public, and talking directly to society to say, ‘If you want this to be eliminated, if you want to get kids in power mobility and get them going around, and have the first generation of kids entering school that have had two or three years of daily mobility. We can do this, it’s within our grasp. 


This information is intended for additional research purposes only. It is not to be used as a prescription or advice from Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. or any medical professional interviewed. Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. assumes no responsibility for the depth or accuracy of physician statements. Procedures or medicines apply to different people and medical factors; always consult your physician on medical matters.


If you would like more information, please contact:


Dr. James C. (Cole) Galloway

Department of Physical Therapy

University of Delaware

(302) 831-3697


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