On Sept. 29, Rensselaer held a media morning to demonstrate a project that promises to aid people with mobility issues. Rensselaer Professor John Wen and Associate Professor Jonas Braasch are working on new technology to transform less expensive, human-friendly industrial robots—that would normally be found in factories—into affordable assistive robots for the elderly and individuals with paralysis of multiple limbs.

More than 300,000 Americans suffer from spinal cord injuries, with 11,000 new injuries reported every year. About 40 percent of these injuries—commonly from traffic accidents, falls, and sports injuries—result in quadriplegia, or paralysis of all four limbs.

Overall, an estimated 2.5 million people worldwide have quadriplegia. Individuals with quadriplegia often require a great deal of assistance, and face significant health care expenses.

There is a great need for a technological solution to help both the elderly and individuals with paralysis of multiple limbs. Robotic caregivers have shown to be a good fit, but the high cost of these robots—about $400,000 each—prohibits their widespread use.


Professors Jonas Braasch and John Wen with Baxter in fall 2013.

At the media event, Wen and Braasch demonstrated “Jamster”—a human-friendly Baxter industrial robot with two arms, mounted on a motorized wheelchair, and operated with a Jamboxx. The Jamboxx is a harmonica-like interface that allows the mobility-challenged to use their mouth and breath to do complex tasks like operating a computer or playing electronic music.

Wen and Braasch are working closely on this project with Jamboxx co-inventor David Whalen, an attorney and Capital Region resident who has been a quadriplegic since being injured in a ski accident 30 years ago. Cognitive Science Professor Mei Si was recently brought onto the project to assist with the social aspects of the robots, including their facial expressions and story-
telling abilities.

The cost of a Jamster is about $26,000, just a fraction of the $400,000 price tag of most other assistive robots.

Jamster technology can help Whalen and others accomplish daily tasks—like picking something off the floor, or getting a drink of water—and gain a greater level of independence.

Wen and Braasch are also working on ways for doctors to use Jamster to remotely interact with and examine patients. Doctors who specialize in “house calls” to elderly or mobility-impaired patients could stay in a centralized office and remotely control a Jamster in the patient’s home to accomplish tasks like listening to the patient’s heart with a stethoscope or taking the patient’s temperature. This could significantly reduce the time a doctor needs to spend on the road driving, and greatly increase the number of patients seen every day—which holds the potential to reduce health care costs.

Looking forward, the researchers hope to identify even more potential uses for Jamster.

The project received funding from New York’s Empire State Development Division of Science, Technology, and Innovation (NYSTAR) and the National Science Foundation.