LSU Engineering Students Program Robot to Help Children with Autism

With his red crown, round blinking eyes and childlike voice, Buddy is quite the unassuming little robot. Like his look, his function is more playful than industrial. He doesn’t lift heavy objects or solve difficult math problems or build machinery. He, instead, plays games and tells stories, making him the perfect playmate for children, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

And soon Buddy will be able to do even more, thanks to the help of the Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network (LATAN) and a group of LSU College of Engineering students.

LSU students are working with LATAN, a non-profit organization that matches technology with disabled individuals, to program the organization’s NAO Humanoid Robot—endearingly called Buddy—to interact with local students on the spectrum.

Children with ASD often have difficulties with social interactions. Deficits can manifest in shifting gaze, faulty facial expression recognition or learning disabilities. Buddy can help by monitoring children’s learning through flashcard games. Moreover, the facial features of a robot, or lack thereof, make communication and interaction simpler for children with ASD. These unique robotic traits can help make a child with ASD more comfortable with social interaction.

Buddy arrived at LATAN with some pre-loaded interactive games. For example, he can sing and do the motions to the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” He can also play music and dance. Buddy has some facial recognition capabilities, but LATAN is hoping to do more, which is where LSU robotics engineering students help.

“Originally, the NAO robot was designed to help children who have autism,” said LATAN Program Director Gary Matherne. “As [Buddy] is introduced to more and more people, both with and without disabilities, we now know he can be useful with the elderly and other populations.”

Five LSU students volunteered with LATAN over the summer to study Buddy and help create new functions for the robot. By the end of June, the students had programmed Buddy to put his right hand over his heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

“The students were never too busy to stop and show off their work to our visitors,” Matherne said. “They were always available to answer questions about Buddy and interact with our guests.”

But LATAN was not the only group to benefit; the students said they learned how to work around limitations, how to work in a team of people with different backgrounds and expertise, and how to use their knowledge for public good.

“I believe there’s great potential in robots like these,” said Jonathan Nguyen, a computer science senior who was part of the group who worked with Buddy. “They offer an ‘extra pair of hands’ for people who need it, whether they are teachers for autistic children … or people with disabilities that make it difficult for them to perform certain tasks.”

Toluwani Adoun, an electrical engineering sophomore, agreed, saying she had always been interested in robotics, but she joined the project to have a “real world impact.”

It’s also advanced the students’ classwork. Yasaswi Gudipudi, an industrial engineering graduate student, plans to use the experience for a project on ergonomic improvements for autism.

But there’s still work to be done, Matherne said. After seeing Buddy’s success, LATAN purchased a second NAO robot, and LSU has agreed to continue what it started.

Gerald Knapp, an associate professor of industrial engineering, said he plans to have students enrolled in his Introduction to Robotics class work with the robots.

Two student teams comprised of four members each will work with LATAN as part of the course, he said, and each of the projects they create will cater to children with ASD.

“The projects will reinforce and extend the learning of course concepts in kinematics and motor control, vision processing and machine learning, behavioral programming, and human-robot interaction,” Knapp said.

One team will further develop Buddy’s Candy Land skills as a way to aid individuals with physical disability that may prevent them from playing the game themselves. The other will create a program to make the robot play a beanbag throw game by teaching the robot how to identify the locations of the buckets and keep the players engaged throughout the game.

“It is our desire to create new and different activities and functions that Buddy can carry out that may be specific to the audience, age or disability,” said Matherne.

The possibilities of LATAN’s NAO robots are practically endless, he said, and LSU students continue to challenge themselves to create new programs both to advance their academic careers as well as help others.

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