Therapeutic robot doubles as ‘man’s best friend’

When it comes to animal-supported therapy, most people can agree–-a dog’s companionship offers the ultimate solace, understanding and validation, the kind mostly unmatched among human beings. For people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, dogs can alleviate their symptoms by reducing patients’ stress and anxiety.

Mississippi State assistant professor of computer science and engineering Cindy Bethel agrees, but as a robotics designer, developer and researcher, she wanted to find a way to incorporate dogs with robotic technology to support ongoing PTSD therapy. Since she completed her doctoral dissertation, “Robots without Faces: Non-Verbal Social Human-Robot Interaction” at the University of Southern Florida, Bethel’s professional career has focused on developing robots that respond to people’s cues, whether to provide comfort or security.

At heart, Bethel is a scientist, so intensive research, both background- and survey-based, underlies her and her team’s approach to developing the type, design and appearance of the robotic dog, the “Therabot™.”

“Our surveys showed that the most preferred form was a floppy eared dog with a tri-colored coat,” Bethel explains. “People associate comfort with dogs, but the problem in most animal-assisted therapies is that you can’t take the dog home with you. So we’ve developed a non-threatening, stuffed robot that moves like a dog. It will be a nice substitute for animal-assisted therapy in the home.”

Her team is in the final stages of completing the first prototype, she says, and the group expects to begin data collection by the end of the summer on how people who’ve experienced trauma respond to the dog.

Therabot's fluffy exterior and a look at the inside mechanics

The Therabot™ will be able to move its head in different ways as it responds to the various touch sensors on its body, and its tail will wag back and forth. It will feature realistic dog sounds and literally listen to patients, which will inform ongoing therapy sessions.

Bethel and her team of students are developing a bot to provide affordable assistance and comfort to victims battling PTSD, but that’s only the beginning, Bethel emphasizes. She hopes to extend its applications to become a companion for the elderly and children in hospitals.

“We want the Therabot™ to assist in different types of breathing exercises and display a nuzzling type of behavior. We’re also working on being able to detect stress based on the pressure the person petting the dog is applying,” she says. “Then, this dog will be able to respond to that stress.”

The development team hopes it will become widely used by a variety of people who need comfort. Commercializing the Therabot™ will be the next step to sharing the therapeutic dog with the general public, the ultimate goal.

“We’re talking about state of the art technology—something that can be used in the home environment,” Bethel says. “Every person who has interacted with it wants to get one, so we are looking for opportunities to fund that, and we welcome alumni and friends’ support.”

One of the biggest reasons for her team’s success in developing the Therabot™, Bethel explains, is the cross-discipline group of students committed to assisting with the project.

Her team includes a senior electrical and computer engineering major—Dexter Duckworth of Memphis, Tennessee, and a senior mechanical engineering student—Christopher Collins of Slidell, Louisiana. Stephanie Wuisan of Petal is the one master’s student on Bethel’s team, and Zachary Henkel of Sour Lake, Texas, is the doctoral student. Both are studying in Bagley College of Engineering’s computer science department.

“As the mechanical engineer, Christopher has helped put the robot together, and Dexter’s been very involved in designing the electronics and programming, along with Stephanie. Zack already has experience building robots and brings a high level of expertise to this project,”

Bethel says. “They work really well as a team and support and balance each other well with their strengths.”

Teaching young scientists, especially undergraduates, is another of Bethel’s passions. She says engaging in applied research initiatives has positioned the undergraduates to enter graduate school and the graduate students for success as professionals.

“I firmly believe in students doing research; these are students who have already made quite the accomplishment, and they are going on to more success,” she says.

By Leah Barbour, Photography by Megan Bean