Category: Archive

A helping hand

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In residence at the university since September 2001, Eamon Doherty teaches nine subjects, including data structure and operating systems. However, it is his work with disabled people that has garnered attention from the university and has inspired his students.
The 39-year-old native of Morris County, N.J., began the class “Mind-Operated Devices with Robotics” as a project for a student who couldn’t attend class because of an injury. “She was at home and needed to earn some credits,” Doherty recalled. “I designed a project for her that would help keep her occupied and I thought that helping someone else in a difficult situation would help put things into perspective.”
Other people showed interest, so Doherty incorporated the class into the summer semester. Last week, at the university’s Metropolitan Campus in Teaneck, Doherty and two of his students demonstrated their latest creation. Shaun Reilly, who’s 22, and 21-year-old Trushar Mehta have spent the last four months working on their project. Each student is expected to build a robot, write a report and, importantly, work in tandem with a quadriplegic patient.
Reilly and Mehta assembled a toy robotic arm. They then programmed a laptop computer to make certain commands. The result is a contraption that allows a quadriplegic with facial mobility to perform certain tasks.
Doherty was quick to demonstrate. Slapping a bronze disc electrode on his forehead and securing it with hypo-allergenic tape, he sat in front of the computer screen. Every four seconds, a command would pop up with instructions like “wrist down.” Doherty waited until he saw the command he wanted and then grimaced. The electrode picked up the movement in his face and the computer program in turn translated the command into movement of the robotic arm.
It may sound painstaking, but the procedure was precise and quick. The robotic arm had been manipulated by Doherty’s facial muscles to pick up a spool of tape.
Because of the work with the patients, students are expected to conform to the standards set by the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C. “It’s very important that they sit and pass the online test,” Doherty said. “Once you are working with human test subjects, there are consent forms and other considerations to be taken into account.”
Students are delighted to be able to work with the quadriplegic patients, who have been friends of Doherty’s for years. As a PhD student in England, Doherty used to fly back to the U.S. to carry out the practical side of his research. He got to know the quadriplegic community in Morris County and the friendships he made have been lasting ones.
Walter Engel is one such friend. A former orchestra director who could play up to 30 instruments, he is now immobile as a result of a brain-stem stroke 12 years ago. He does, however, have the ability to move his eyebrows.
Engel has helped the students out with many projects.
“He is very sociable, but he cannot talk,” Doherty said. “So, when people come to visit him, they soon move out into the kitchen. We thought of a great invention for him.”
A student assembled a robot made to look like a small, silver terrier dog and attached a camera onto the head. With a laptop set-up, similar to the one described above, Engel was able to choose commands from a computer screen with the help of an electrode and some eyebrow movement. There was a microphone on the dog, so that Engel could hear what was going on. “Walter loved it,” Doherty said. “He made the robot go into the kitchen and made it dance.”
Last week, with the help of his nurse, Jacqueline Forbes, and using a letter-board to communicate, Engel articulated his thoughts on Doherty’s work.
“We are a nation geared toward longevity and youth,” he said. “But the question is, what can we do to reach this goal and is this longevity and youth for every American with a deficit or not? The advanced technology such as robotics and cyberlink programming enables people like me, ‘quads,’ the encouragement, the will and the hope to look forward.”
He continued by saying, “Doherty’s software makes it possible for me to achieve control over my life. Using a computer mouse I can relay instructions to my caregivers, or dial a phone or answer my own doorbell. Having used the prototype, I look forward to the end product. Thank you, Dr. Doherty.”
The system was also fitted out with a telephone. The numbers flashed on the screen and with a twitch of the eyebrows, Engel could choose the numbers and even words. The latter part of the invention caught the attention of the university’s lawyer, who arranged for it to be patented.
“It could be used as a tool for an immobile person to make calls,” Doherty said. “Walter made the first call in years using that.”
Although the robots designed by the students are rudimentary, Doherty believes the work and research they are doing has real potential.
“We use the toys as they are cheap but a plastic robotic arm was not built to be used like that,” he said. “As the technology improves and gets cheaper, it will be a useful tool.”
Doherty’s path to teaching was a long one. Having studied English and computer technology, he worked for Morris County, doing all the training, repair and support for the giant main frame systems and PCs in the prison, morgue and police departments.
“I did that for six and a half years, often working the night shift,” he said. “It started to skew my view of life; it was all so morbid. So when I was offered work teaching the prisoners how to use computers, I took it.”
Doherty found his new role as a teacher much more positive.
“The computer skills would give the prisoners a chance at getting a job once they left prison,” he said.
He then got a job teaching at the county college and was encouraged to do a masters degree. On completion of the masters, he started a PhD at the University of Sunderland, in England.
Doherty attributes his love of making things to his father’s side of the family. Originally from County Cork, they were part of the traveling community.
Doherty will be calling on his friends again in September to help out with a new project. Bruce Davis, a mathematics teacher at the college, was injured in a diving accident 16 years ago and was left with a broken neck. He can move his head and speak. He had helped out before, testing various pieces of equipment, including one machine that enabled him to pick up a cookie for the first time in years and feed himself.
Doherty is excited about the new project.
“We have a robotic arm from a U.S. arm surplus sale,” Doherty said. “We will hook up a web camera to his computer, hook up the computer to the internet and Bruce will operate the arm from his home. He will move the arm in my office from his home.”
Doherty is grateful to the university for its support.
“I am so pleased that they let me do this as it is expensive and doesn’t generate profits,” he said. “They could ask me for cell phone technology, but this is a caring community school.”
Future projects include a land-mine detector, which excites student Suhail Ali, a 30-year-old Gulf War veteran and former instructor at a military academy in the United Arab Emirates. Doherty and Ali hope to build a robotic hovercraft that has arms on either side to scan the ground for metal.
“I like the way he thinks,” Ali said of Doherty. “He is the only person on campus doing this kind of research.”
Ali attributes the popularity of Doherty’s classes to the practical nature of them.
“We all study computer science, but this is a chance to use it in real life,” he said. “Many students have offered to help out with my project because you learn much more when robotics are applied in real-life situations.”

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