Rehabilitation Robotics Newsletter

Project Showcase
Fall/Winter 1994

The Handy 1 Rehabilitation Robot from Rehab Robotics Ltd.

Michael Topping
Rehab Robotics Ltd., UK


Handy 1 is the world's first commercially available robotic aid to independence capable of assisting the severely disabled with everyday tasks such as eating, drinking, shaving, teeth cleaning, putting on make-up, grooming, painting and drawing, and playing games.

Work began on developing the robot as an aid to eating in 1988 at Keele University. The first system was developed specifically to enable a 12 year old boy with cerebral palsy to eat unaided. This project went on to build around 40 prototype aids to eating which were used by people with severe disability on a full time basis. The disability groups that successfully used these initial units were cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease, stroke, accident, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. The age range was between 3 and 86 years. The Handy 1 project was transferred to Staffordshire University and The North Staffordshire Health Authority in 1992 where development work is still very actively taking place.

The system as an aid to eating became commercially available in 1992 when Rehab Robotics Ltd. was formed. The company operates from the Science Park at Keele University. To date and including the research models in excess of 100 Handy 1 robotic systems are being used in the UK and Europe and serviced by Rehab Robotics Ltd.

How the Handy 1 is controlled

Handy 1 is designed to look attractive and to be simple to use, even by the most severely disabled person. The interface between the robot and the disabled user is a single switch and this is the only part of the system that may be different for each individual person.

Handy 1 comes with a "Handy Single Switch" fitted to its casing via a length of flexible gooseneck tubing. In this form the robot can be easily set up so that it can be operated by almost any part of the body. In the majority of cases, this switching arrangement has proved successful, allowing access to a wide range of different disability groups.

Making a choice of which food to eat

The choice of which food is to be picked up from the dish is made via a scanning LED indicator strip which is fitted into the robot tray section.

Handy 1 allows up to a maximum of seven different types of food to be placed onto the dish and selected. The pace at which the meal is taken is also under the direct control of the person using the system. Many of our clients have commented that the robot is more patient with them than a human carer, allowing them time to enjoy their meal at a pace they control themselves.
The choice of food is placed onto the purposely designed ceramic dish which is supplied with the system. If a hot meal is served, then the heated tray section can be switched on to keep the food at an even temperature.

Once the food has been set out, the LED indicator strip positioned behind the dish begins to scan from left to right along the length of the dish. The user then simply waits for the LED to be lit behind the section of food they want to eat. Then they activate their single switch and the robot proceeds onto the dish, scoops up a spoonful of that food and brings it back to a pre-set mouth position which is chosen and easily changed by the user. At this point, the user then takes the food from the spoon. The next press of the single switch removes the spoon from in front of the mouth to a rest position and the LED's begin to scan again to allow a further choice from the dish. The robot's computer system is logging where the robot has taken food from the dish and will not return to an area where food has already been taken from.

Robotic Therapy

Over the past 7 years, we have observed that if used on a regular basis, Handy 1 can help certain disability groups to either regain lost control or develop new physical movements. Handy 1 is a robot and robots are very consistent in their movements. We have found this to be important for people with disabilities. No matter how skilled a caregiver is in terms of feeding people with disabilities, they will find it impossible to constantly bring each spoonful of food back to an exact mouth position. In many cases, people being fed by human carers will have poor control of their body and head movements. Therefore, they will have a tendency without realizing it to move out of the midline during a meal. What happens quite often is that the caregiver will follow the disabled person with the spoon. This results in the disabled person receiving food from a poor eating position.

Handy 1 is patient and consistent in its approach and delivery. The system requires that the user is in the correct eating position before the food is removed from the spoon. The head must be in the midline, the tongue replaced into the mouth and the lips used to remove the food from the spoon.
In many cases, for the first time in their lives, the people using the system are actually eating by themselves in correct positions, understanding how to take food from a spoon themselves, as opposed to having the food put into their mouths and doing nothing for themselves.

Handy 1 uses its purposely designed flat bottomed robot spoon to maximize scooping and minimize spillage. We have found that the flat shape of the spoon is ideal for people who have poor lip closure. Conventional bevel shaped spoons make it difficult for disabled people with poor lip closure to take food successfully. The flat robot spoon allows the lips to meet and therefore makes it much easier for the food to be removed cleanly.

New Developments

Currently the Handy 1 is commercially available as an aid to eating and drinking. However, several new attachments for the system have been developed in conjunction with Staffordshire University and are at present being tested in the field. These new attachments include: (1) a Shaver - battery powered and made to be picked up and manipulated around the face (2) a Teeth Cleaner - again, a battery powered brush that can be picked up and moved around the mouth to clean upper and lower teeth (3) a Make-up Applicator - this attachment was specifically requested by ladies with motor neurone disease. It allows the person to choose from a range of cosmetics including powder, lipstick, foundation, cream, etc. which can then be put onto the relevant brush or pad by the robot and brought to the face.

A robotic compendium of games allows the disabled client to play and interact with other severely disabled people via 2 switches or to play an able bodied opponent via a single switch. Several leisure time activities are being tested including the Handy Art and Paintbox.


In conclusion, we have shown that rehabilitation robotics has a unique and important role to play in the rehabilitation and care of many groups of disabled people.

The setting up of Rehab Robotics Ltd. has been necessary, and the specialist role it plays in ensuring that the systems are placed and looked after correctly is vitally important.

We are excited at the future potential for the Handy 1 robot and confident that we can go further and explore many new areas for the robot to assist in.

For more information, contact:
Mike Topping
Rehab Robotics Ltd.
Keele University, Science Park
Suite 3.3
Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG
Phone: 0782 712774
Fax: 0782 713230

The Project Showcase is a regular feature of the newsletter in which a selected project or program is spotlighted. If you are interested in having your project showcased, contact Tariq Rahman or Julia Mercier at ASEL.

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Last updated: October 24, 1996
Copyright © Applied Science and Engineering Laboratories, 1996.