10 years ago, at the age of 40, Henry Evans suffered what many would consider their worst nightmare—a stroke that left him mute and paralyzed. After years of therapy, he was able to regain movement in his head and a single finger. This might not seem like much, but in a world of brain-machine interfaces and robot emissaries, that’s allEvans needed to be able to participate in life again.
After seeing a clip on TV about robots helping disabled people, Evans teamed up with Steve Cousins of Willow Garage and Charlie Kemp of the Healthcare Robotics Laboratory at Georgia Tech University to establish Robots for Humanity, a program that focuses on how to make the physical world accessible for people like Evans. One of the main aspects of the program involves a PR2 robot that acts as a surrogate so Evans can perform the tasks he thought he’d never be able to do for himself again, such as scratch an itch or do housework. It allowed him to perform tasks he wouldn’t have been able to do even if he were fully able-bodied, such as shave Charlie from across the country. With his robot emissary, he can do things like play soccer, or give a TEDx talk.
Evans didn’t stop at a robot surrogate, though. With the help of Chad Jenkins, who develops and flies aerial drones, he learned how to expand his physical world even more and do things that able-bodied people can’t, like fly. Evans can control the mouse and cursor with his head, which allows him to fly the drone around his property, looking at the garden, even inspecting the roof. He’s so good at it that he can land the drone on the family’s basketball hoop. He flies drones around Brown University from his home across the country, so he’s able to help test and further develop this kind of technology without even moving a muscle or being on the premises. During the TEDx talk from his bed in California he flew the drone around and used it to respond to questions.
The goal of Robots for Humanity is to “democratize robotics,” making these systems available to all who need them. The software is all open source, and they’re working to make the technology affordable. They want better ways to provide movement for the disabled, and are always looking for ideas about what’s useful for people who can’t leave their beds or chairs.
Ultimately, Evans hopes this will level the playing field for physically disabled people so that they’re judged for their intellect and imagination. At the end of the talk, he summed up the future with regards to robots, eloquently saying that they can be used either for good or for evil, for replacing people or for making people better. In a nutshell, those really are the choices, aren’t they? He and his partners obviously choose the latter, and in a way that is so incredible that I believe they’ll inspire others to make that same choice.