Designing From Experience

I've been using a walking cane for about three months. I have a high-tech version made of indestructible epoxy with a knob handle, and two old-fashioned 'C' handle canes made of white hickory. One of the canes is notched in strategic areas for easy gripping in self-defense situations. Fortunately, I don't really have to use a cane. I'm still able to run for a couple hours at a time with no difficulty. No, I'm not out to make a fashion statement. I use a cane because I'm working on a mobility assistance project that leverages robotic technology to assist the elderly and the injured. I use the cane because I need to know — first-hand — their strengths, weaknesses, and how they might be improved.

For example, I know that walking with a cane is a pain. One hand is always occupied unless you tuck the cane under an arm or hook it on an arm or belt. Then, there's the problem of shopping with one hand, or trying to use a cane and umbrella when it rains. Forget walking to the local grocery store when it's raining — unless you can fit all of your purchases in a backpack.

There's also particulars about walking canes that are difficult to appreciate from a theoretical perspective. One is the basic type of cane. I have C canes and a knob cane. The Derby cane is also popular among casual users, and the offset cane — which looks like a question mark — places the user's center of gravity directly over the cane body.

Then, there's the material used in construction — from fiberglass, aluminum, and wood, to steel and plastic. Fiberglass is close to indestructible, and wood has to be occasionally treated. Then, of course, there's the tip. Forget using a bare wood cane on a polished marble or wooden floor — you'll probably fall and have to use a cane. A rubber tip works fine indoors, but then when it's icy outside, you'll want to switch to a spike tip.

So, what's the point in this exercise? Well, let's say that, like me, you're looking at improving on an established mobility aid. With some first-hand experience, you should have a good idea of where you'd mount, say, an electronic direction indicator. Or, whether a Derby or offset handle would be best for mounting heart rate monitoring contacts. Or, if some sort of traction detection device could automatically configure the tip to work in rain, ice, or on a slick stone floor. Or, how to detect if the user slipped and then autodial 911.

Clearly, if you're designing a robotic system for a particular use or environment, you can't really innovate if you stay behind a computer screen. Robotics is a contact sport. You've got to get out there and experience the environment for yourself. Working on a submersible robot? If so, you should be spending time underwater in a wet suit. Designing quadcopter drones? Then, get some air time as a passenger in a helicopter. SV

Posted by Michael Kaudze on 02/20 at 03:47 PM


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