A robot named DARWiN may be the next evo­lu­tionary step in the way people with dis­abil­i­ties are able to com­plete everyday tasks.

Cre­ated by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity engi­neering stu­dents as their senior cap­stone project, the Dis­ability Assis­tant Robot With i (Eye) Nav­i­ga­tion robot could help someone with a phys­ical dis­ability become more inde­pen­dent. The system allows a user to look at dif­ferent parts of a com­puter screen to con­trol the robot, which can move from room to room and pick up items like mail, keys or medicine.

We came up with the tech­nolo­gies we wanted to use first — eye-​​tracking and brain con­trol,” said group leader Anthony “Tony” DiPasquale. “We liked the idea of a robot that [incor­po­rated] those two things, so we came up with an assis­tant for the dis­abled who have trouble using their hands.”

The team also included seniors Jason Tur­cotte, Huy Tran, Jeremy Egan, Brian Nelson and Frank Viera. They were super­vised by Waleed Meleis, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering.

After deter­mining that a brain-​​control device was imprac­tical due to the long training time required, the team devel­oped a com­puter inter­face that tracks where on the screen a person is looking, a skill that takes only about an hour to learn.

A camera mounted on the robot’s arm sends a video signal of what DARWiN sees to a spe­cial appli­ca­tion run­ning on the user’s com­puter. From this appli­ca­tion, a user can com­pletely con­trol DARWiN simply by looking at dif­ferent areas on their com­puter screen.  If the user is able to speak, DARWiN will also respond to voice commands.

Though the tasks seem trivial, say mem­bers of the team, DARWiN is impor­tant because it can free a dis­abled person of the incon­ve­nience of having to rely on someone else to exe­cute simple tasks they would oth­er­wise be unable to perform.

Cap­stone projects pro­vide engi­neering stu­dents with a rich experiential-​​learning oppor­tu­nity, enabling them to build on their inno­v­a­tive ideas through use-​​inspired research and devel­op­ment at a level of com­plexity more typ­ical of grad­uate studies.

Stu­dents working on the projects, Meleis explains, work closely with mem­bers of the fac­ulty as well as col­leagues from prior co-​​op employers, many of which hire North­eastern grad­u­ates as full-​​time employees.

Their co-​​op jobs have informed and guided their selec­tion of projects,” Meleis said. “They get parts from their co-​​op employers and they get ideas. And often, stu­dents will go back to their co-​​op employer after grad­u­a­tion, so they bring every­thing they learned in cap­stone back with them.”