BIC Affordable Flexible Robotics to Aid Farmers with Mobility Limitations


This Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity (PFI:BIC) project leverages the collaboration between Virginia Tech, AgrAbility Virginia, TORC, Easter Seals UCP, and Total Motion Physical Therapy (now referred to as “the Partnership”) to co-develop flexible robotic systems that are wearable by farmers with mobility limitations in order to assist them in performing activities of daily living. In the spirit of generating outcomes from this collaboration among the Partnership, which are greater than the sum of the outcomes of each single partner alone, we propose not only to adapt the flexible robotics technology to the needs of farmers with mobility limitations, hence improving their quality of life, but also to educate them regarding the availability and role of assistive technology in their life from a human factor and social perspective. No single partner by itself would have been able to achieve such an outcome working alone.
The proposed effort consists of a combination of 1) technology development in order to take out-of-the-box flexible robotics technology and make it suitable to this particular population; 2) development of a test bed with TORC which will allow for testing such technology in typical daily activities; 3) coordination of a service delivery system to increase organizational capacity and provide the best quality education and services for stakeholder outreach, health-based agricultural resources, and community-based services that address much needed life and farm-based goals of farm workers and farm families while, at the same time, creating hope and dignity in their lives and communities.
This Partnership for Innovation project develops and tests the use of service robots to monitor health and improve the quality of life of farmers with mobility limitations. The average age of farmers has been steadily increasing. Currently, the national average age of farmers is 57.1 (USDA, 2007a) with about one-third of them being over 65. As they get older, farmers will deal with impaired vision and hearing, slow reaction times, and many other age related disabilities such as arthritis. All of these factors may adversely affect their ability to operate equipment safely, resulting in primary or secondary injuries. Additionally, some States are seeing an increase of new and beginning farmers who do not come from, or have less experience in agriculture, including young, women, socially disadvantaged, and military veteran farmers. With a lack of alternative solutions available, robotics is a welcomed approach for assisting a wide variety of farmers with mobility limitations due to illnesses, injuries, or disabilities that are impeding their ability to work safely, effectively, and productively. In particular, we propose to develop a low-cost flexible suit that will provide motion assistance to farmers affected by arthritis, aging, or disability. An important and novel aspect of the proposed suit is that, by being flexible, it will readily conform to the wearer's body without being restricting or intrusive, yet assisting motion as desired. This work builds on existing research on wearable robotics at Virginia Tech, as well as the expertise that TORC has developed by producing several farming equipment automation products. In addition, through the collaboration with AgrAbility Virginia (AgVA), and its statewide rural rehabilitation network, we will address the human factors component of this technology and the need to educate farmers and their families to it, its benefits and capabilities, hence improving the potential of implementation and benefit from it. This will be accomplished by including farmers, professional educators, and rehabilitation experts into the the design development and evaluation process to ensure human safety, technology and cultural sensitivity goals are equally addressed.


Dr. Alexander Leonessa

Professor, Mechanical Engineering Department

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24060

Dr. Alan Asbeck

Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering Department

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24060

Dr. Kim Niewolny

Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24060

Dr. Divya Srinivasan

Professor, Industrial Engineering and Bioengineering

Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634