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Engineering capstone offers independence to physically disabled

“There’s no right pace,” said Mohamed Kante, E’12, who worked with elderly and disabled patients at Kindred Transitional Care and Rehabilitation – Crawford in Fall River, Mass. No matter how fast or slow he and his colleagues offered patients bites of food, they could never match the patients’ individual needs.

So Kante and five of his electrical and computer engineering classmates decided to solve that problem with a senior capstone project that puts the control in the patient’s hands, or — in this case — their eyes.

The undergraduate student-researchers won this year’s first-place award in the ECE capstone competition for developing an eye-controlled robotic arm that allows patients to feed themselves. “Once they have the ability to do it themselves, there’s an enormous sense of freedom,” said James Barron, who developed software for the project.

The capstone team included Nick Aquino, Barron, Kante, Ryan LaVoie, Pedro Lopes and Basel Magfory. Waleed Meleis, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, served as the group’s faculty advisor.

The eye Controlled Robotic Arm Feeding Technology, or iCRAFT, has the potential “to give thousands of paralyzed individuals the independence to eat with minimal help from a caregiver,” Meleis said.

Similar technologies exist, including the recently reported BrainGate implant, which allows patients to control a robotic arm merely by thinking about it. But these  require some kind of invasive — or even surgical — interface to connect the user’s desires with the robot’s behaviors, Lopes said.

In this case, there is no physical connection between the user and the control device — no joystick under their chin, for example. Instead, the patient needs only to look at a box on a computer screen.

The team developed an eye-tracking software that couples the direction of a patient’s pupils with his or her food choices. Three colored segments of the screen correspond to two bowls of food and a drinking bottle. A fourth, larger segment allows the patient to take a break from eating.

Meleis said that the graphical user interface designed by the team is impressive because of its simplicity. The judges, 12 practicing alumni engineers, “were particularly impressed with the impact iCRAFT will have on the target populations and by the successful integration of eye tracking, robotics, a custom GUI and specialized equipment,” he said.

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“The single best moment of this capstone experience was the first time we were actually able to control the robot arm with nothing but our eyes,” Barron noted. “Once we were able to accomplish this feat, I was confident that everything else would fall into place.”

He was right. Aside from winning first place in the capstone competition, the team has developed a tool that community members can use immediately with the appropriate technical know-how: The iCRAFT team has published the robotics plans online and the software package is available as an open-source download.

Current alternative self-feeding devices cost in the range of $3,500, but iCRAFT can be constructed for around $900, making the technology a more affordable option for disabled individuals and their caregivers and families.