Canadian robotic arm helps handicapped reach self-sufficiency

Quebec’s Kinova Robotics combines a 6-axis manipulator and unique 3-fingered gripper for its industry leading JACO2 robotic arm.

0 May 22, 2015
by David Godkin

15-May-Kinova-JACO2-625For those disabled by a birth defect, trauma or a degenerative disease, performing the most mundane of tasks is a struggle. Most rely on caregivers or – as in the case of 17-year-old Laura Bairett who is confined to a wheelchair by spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) – her service dog Darcy.

Today, however, a growing number people with reduced upper body mobility benefit from personal robotic aids that open up a level of self-sufficiency previously unimaginable. In Laura’s case, that aid comes from a plug-and-play robotic arm for wheelchair bound people called the JACO2, designed by Boisbriand, Quebec-based Kinova Robotics.

An outgrowth of the original JACO robotic arm released in 2010, the Canadian-built arm now helps Bairett perform more than 200 common actions Darcy can’t do.

“I can switch on a light switch with JACO,” she says. “I use it for hygiene care like brushing my hair, cooking, carrying things and shopping. I’m able to get very heavy objects off racks and shelves that I otherwise would not be able to get. JACO has had a magnificent impact on my life.”

Rather than retrofitting an existing industrial robot to fit a wheelchair, Kinova Robotics designed its arm “from scratch,” says Chief Business Development Officer Francois Boucher. Most notable among its features, he says, is a mug-sized process controller located between the mounting and the arm’s all important first joint. Users are able to grasp books, cups, even single sheets of paper that have fallen to the floor using a two or three finger grip that can move 360 degrees at the wrist – with wrist and grip revolving at the end of the six-axis manipulator arm.

The key to JACO2’s success are the six degrees of movement and “on-the-fly” programming that allows users to speed up repetitive tasks. These are supported by inverse kinematics at the core of the controls: Three translation modes govern the arm’s left/right, front/back, up/down motions providing six basic movements along the x, y and z axes.

The finger mode, meantime, simultaneously opens or closes the JACO’s two or three fingers, while the wrist mode orients the fingers in a lateral or vertical orientation and provides that 360 degrees of wrist rotation.

It all adds up to movements so intuitive, says Boucher, “that a child of five can grip a bottle of soda pop, pour it into a glass and drink from it within minutes.” Slip rings, notably at JACO2’s sixth joint actuator, avoid the “physical constraints” other robotic firms encounter because of the twisting spider’s nest of wires in their manipulator arms.

At 5kg, the arm is also one of the lightest robotic manipulators in its category, something Bouchard attributes to the arm’s carbon fibre structure. Its light weight, in turn, preserves wheelchair balance and takes the burden off caregivers who must detach JACO2 from the wheel chair.

Initial programming is done at the factory in Boisbriand, after which the user programs the robot’s work modes to meet the more specific activities that must be performed in a day. Once they’re familiar with what the robot can accomplish, users can relegate less frequently used functions to a secondary B list, Boucher explains, reserving more important functions, such as moving backwards and forwards, to a primary A list of functions.

“For example, rotating the wrist along the left axis you might do less often, other than for drinking,” he says. “So you can move that to List B.”

Boucher acknowledges that JACO2, in its present form, isn’t suited for tasks within a manufacturing setting. “It could, but we’re missing a lot of the primary specs that people in manufacturing are looking for, such as speed and precision. It is still at the research level for now.”

That hasn’t stopped NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, however, from experimenting with the JACO arm to manipulate positional and rotational tracking equipment. For now, Boucher says the company will continue to focus on disability assistance applications, as there are few suitable options on the market.

“All robotics used for disability are either industrial machines attached to wheelchairs which are clunky and use a lot of power,” he explains, “or they are things built by college students out of spare lamp parts. They’re better than nothing, but they’re not professional or designed with JACO’s strength and flexibility.”

That strength is not limitless, though, and the flexibility of the fingers is also a limitation, Boucher concedes. The JACO2’s main points of weakness are its fingers “which do an adequate job, but are less protected and more breakable than the arm.”

Using the JACO’s arms, however, users can slide large or heavy objects towards them, such as a large laptop, but lifting them is more difficult “because the fingers are made of a softer, more flexible material,” Boucher says.

Waterproof in the event of spills or inclement weather the arm requires annual maintenance more to address “noisiness” than component malfunction, Boucher adds. At an average cost of CAD$35,000 and a two-year warranty, the JACO series has been sold to individuals and companies in more than 28 countries, including Europe and the U.S.

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