Drone as an ‘AI wizard’ for children with autism

for a large number For autistic children, there is no appropriate or affordable treatment. This group is verbally retarded, which means that proven interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy or Speech therapy be inappropriate. Dance movement therapy (DMT), a movement- and dance-focused therapy, is appropriate. DMT has been shown to improve the well-being, attention, flexibility, communication and communication skills of these children. But because treatment only works if it is carefully designed for the child, the therapist can only treat one person at a time.

Therefore, humanoid robots are often used as an alternative, but they are very expensive. They often cost more than 7,000 euros. And then they still have to be programmed, says Anahita Jamshednejad, assistant professor at TU Delft. I thought why not choose drones?

The most suitable drones

Experiments show that children with autism often find robots very interesting. Robots are more predictable than humans, and their forms of communication are less intense, so children feel less fear. Most DMT-focused projects use a humanoid robot, but it has limited motor capabilities. Jamshid Nejad therefore sees drones as the “robots” most suitable for DMT. “A drone is a robot, but it gets off the ground. This extra dimension means the device can perform many different movements. A drone is much cheaper than a robot, easier to program and easier to control by a caregiver or family.”

Making repetitive motions gives kids peace of mind

Jamshidnejad had just started as an assistant professor at TU Delft in 2019. She planned to create her own line of research, focusing on the interaction between humans and robots. Then the idea of ​​drones was born. My wish was to do something that would help people. I have a keen interest in psychology and have heard about autism and DMT.

I contacted the Department of Psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. The feedback was enthusiastic, but also hesitant: “There was little experience with the technology.” Together with Ruth van der Halen, assistant professor of clinical psychology, she submitted an application through the Open Mind funding tool. Many calls focus on psychology or technical sciences. Open Mind values ​​multidisciplinarity and is therefore the perfect fit. Their first application of this idea was immediately successful.

Resting the therapist from work

Drones want to develop their own functions as independently as possible. This way the therapist has less work to do, she explains. The device must therefore be able to interpret children’s reactions and adjust the software accordingly: “It must be AI-processed, so that the drone can also be used at home. The therapist should be able to leave for ten minutes and guide several people at the same time in their sessions. So the processor must be able to depend on the device. The entire responsibility rests with the drone. This is different from the regular interaction between humans and robots.

In the video below they introduce Open Mind, explain Jamshid Nejad and van der Halen from their research.

The big question was how the algorithm in the drone could see what was going on in the child. Interdisciplinary collaboration with psychologists has proven valuable. We wondered how we could read emotions from a child’s face. But with this group of kids, you don’t get that information that way. This is only possible with children who have a milder form of autism. The solution is that the drone looks at how well the kids imitate the drone’s movements and how accurately they do it. Researchers use this information to determine if the child is showing interest.

reply in real time

The technical challenge was the drone’s response time. This person must respond promptly to the children in order to ensure that the interaction goes smoothly. Normally, when dealing with a robot, people understand that they have to be patient, but this group will not have that patience, it has to be At presentThis requires fast calculations which are hard to achieve on a drone without it becoming too slow. Speed ​​can still be guaranteed with a WiFi connection to a good laptop.

Portrait of Anahita Jamshednejad

An open mind opened doors for me

During the session, the drone plays songs to gain attention. When the child hits something, the drone performs simple dance moves that the child can imitate. The camera records the baby’s reactions and with the help of artificial intelligence, the drone adjusts the movements accordingly. “Making repetitive motions can give children peace of mind,” says Jamshid Nejad.

sustainable cooperation

The year-long project resulted in a publication and master’s thesis. It also led to a successful collaboration with the Department of Psychology at Erasmus University. “We’ve introduced technology as a theme for them.” The project stimulated Jamshidnejad for new research proposals. In 2020, she was awarded a Veni grant to research self-driving drones that help firefighters in emergency operations. Within the open competition, you are doing a project that looks at the interaction of humanoid robots and people with dementia.

An open mind has had a huge impact

“Open Mind was my first award. It wasn’t the biggest, but the impact was huge. An open mind opened doors for me,” Jamshid-Nejad says, looking back. It enabled me to create my own line of research. I got funding, I was able to put together a team, And it gave me a vision of the field I wanted to work in. This was my achievement.

Researchers are looking at new applications for larger calls targeting drones. Jamshid-Nejad notes the potential impact of their idea: “If we can make affordable drones, 24-hour supervision of these children will become possible. And if the drones can adapt to the children, the effectiveness of the treatment will increase.”
About 1 percent of children are diagnosed with autism. Many do not receive the help they need: ‘The non-verbal group is most in need of guidance, but receives the least amount of help. This solution is for them.

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