Students build robotics to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in Dubai

The region’s first special needs hackathon to create solutions for people with disabilities was held this week

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 30 October 2017. Tech students come together to try and find solutions to help people with special needs move and communicate in the first assistive technology Hackathon organised by the Al Noor Special Needs Centre. LtoR: Team The Mediators, Rohit Vasu, Shaurya Sood, Arsheen Mir, Alina Zaidi and Rewant Verma from Bits Pilani Dubai Campus. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Hala Khalaf. Section: Arts & Culture.

Computer science and technology students busily attached wires to a sensor that would prevent a wheelchair from crashing into a wall, across the room, a group of students were building a robotic feeding arm, others were fixing a hydraulic system to gently elevate a chair and another team coded software to turn sign language to speech.

This was the region’s first hackathon where more than 80 college students and professionals from various sectors came together to create devices to help people with disabilities work and communicate at the Al Noor Training Centre this week.

“We are hoping we can help people with muscular dystrophy, those whose muscles are too weak to move, also the elderly and people with arthritis with our adult stroller so they don’t need to ask anyone for help,” said Shilpa Sujith a student from the American University of Sharjah, part of the Blue Cohort team of students and professionals from the beverage industry and special needs sector.

Participants were shortlisted from hundreds of applications from around the country and divided into 16 teams for the project.

The ground work began more than a month ago when teams were linked with a person with special needs and their family to gain an understanding of the unique challenge each individual faced. Workshops on robotics and assistive technology were organised by Microsoft for participants to grasp advances in assistive technology from basic solutions such as cutlery with firm hand grips to eye gaze technology that can shift a cursor on the screen.


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To adapt a chair that would gently push a woman with muscular dystrophy into a standing position, the Blue Cohort team scoured garage sales in Al Quoz and shops in Dragon Mart to build a hydraulic system. With the press of a button, a motor gradually pushes up the seat while the user holds onto a detachable rod for support.

“The lady can walk but she asks colleagues for help to stand because the muscles in her arms and hips are too weak to support her into a standing position. This is just the first prototype but if it can be customised and help people do tasks on their own, it would be great,” said Mohit Saraswat, an employee with a consumer goods firm.

Engineering students from BITS Pilani, Dubai welded together a gadget that can be attached to a wheelchair to help a teenager with cerebral palsy move within his home. The teenager currently requires the help of his parents or a caregiver.

The Mediators team produced a device that once fixed to a wheelchair will automatically move it to the washroom or hall area by pushing a button. This is linked to sensors controlled by a smartphone application they designed.

“We needed a kit that could transport someone safely between rooms so a wheelchair does not crash into a wall but stays a safe distance away. It needed to be simple so we have just two big buttons on the iPad to sync with the device,” said Rewant Verma, an engineering student.

“This could be used in hospitals or retirement homes to help people safely navigate indoors without assistance.”

Some teams used facial recognition with robotics to develop a feeding arm, others built sensory devices that through texture and touch can measure temperature and heart rate, and the desire for food and water of people who cannot communicate. Another group created a specially-designed cushion with flexible straps and winch to easily move a person from a wheelchair to the bed.

The creations impressed experts such as Tanya Rudd, philanthropies lead at Microsoft Gulf.

“The teams quickly realized that the real issue they were addressing wasn’t just one of speech, text or interaction; the issue they were solving was that of inclusion and independence,” she said.

“The hackathon showed us that we have amazing talent around that is willing to offer their support. It also shows us that if you think beyond the obvious you will get some completely new solutions that you were not aware were even possible before.  This hackathon created an environment of innovation, and showed us that more disruption will come from future innovations which will, hopefully, not only bring great solutions to the market, but at a cost that is easily affordable.”