David Whalen is into the band Cake, but really loves Steely Dan. Whalen is a musician himself. He plays a harmonica of sorts, mostly by necessity.
A quadriplegic since a 1981 ski accident, the Glenville attorney worked with others to develop hands-free instruments that others like him could enjoy. With Jamboxx, people use their mouth and breath in a sip-and-puff fashion to create electronic music and even art.
When combined with technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it can create something more: a sense of independence.
RPI has robots designed for industrial use. Whalen approached experts there with a question: Could they help me in some way? Thus was born an idea inching closer to reality: converting a fixed industrial robot one would find in a factory into an affordable, mobile, in-home aide for the elderly and others, including those with paralysis of multiple limbs.
The result was on display Monday in the Low Center for Industrial Innovations on the RPI campus. Jamster is a mobile dual-arm robot on a wheelchair platform that is controlled by the mouth using Whalen’s Jamboxx. Developed by robotics researchers as part of an interdisciplinary team along with Whalen and a group of RPI graduate and undergraduate students, the Jamboxx technology is adapted so Baxter — a human-friendly robot — can be mounted on a wheelchair and be used to assist the elderly, quadriplegics and others suffering from, say, strokes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and muscular sclerosis. (Jamboxx plus Baxter equals Jamster.)
Using only his mouth, Whalen demonstrated how the robot could fetch a towel off the floor or retrieve a soda can, among other tasks.
“The robot is pretty great in a lot of ways,” Whalen said. “Like, if you are alone and you need a drink, or a snack, or if you drop something on the floor.
“It wouldn’t replace a human, but it’s a great mechanism,” he continued. “It’s also a great sentinel. If you’re bed-bound, it’s security.”
Work is also being done to create cognitive components that would allow these mobile robots to serve as companions. Then there is an even more futuristic application envisioned: using Jamster to allow doctors to remotely examine disabled patients in their homes, rather than having them go through the major endeavor of going to an office or hospital.
“It has a lot of different roles,” Whalen said. “It can help with the tasks of daily living.”
More than 300,000 Americans a year suffer spinal cord injuries, about 40 percent of which result in quadriplegia, RPI reports. In addition, by 2030, nearly one in five Americans will be 65 or older — indications of the need for the technology.
There are still technological hurdles to overcome, such as getting both robotic arms to work in unison. But until now there was an even bigger stumbling block: cost.
Robotic caregivers have proved their usefulness, but the price tag — $400,000 — has ruled out their widespread use. But retooling industrial robots onto ubiquitous wheelchairs brings down the cost dramatically.
“In the last few years, so many things have changed in the maker revolution,” said Jonas Braasch, an RPI acoustician and experimental musician assigned to the project. “You don’t have to specialize.”
And this is where this device can have a huge impact. The cost of Jamster? $26,000, expected to drop to $10,000-$15,000.
“And the more people who buy it, the more it becomes cheaper,” said Mei Sei, an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science.
Whalen looked around the RPI lab. “I never envisioned being in a room full of robots,” the 52-year-old said. But he also never envisioned that a tool for making music could end up being so much more.