“Are you drinking enough water?”
The question is so ubiquitous that it’s become meme canon in recent years. But what may be an annoying reminder to one person is often a logistical challenge for people dealing with mobility issues like cerebral palsy (CP). After learning about the potential physical hurdles involved in staying hydrated, two undergraduate engineering students at Rice University set out to design a robotic tool to help disabled users easily access their drinks as needed. The result, appropriately dubbed “RoboCup,” is not only a simple, relatively easy-to-construct device—it’s one whose plans are already available to anyone online for free.
According to a recent university profile, Thomas Kutcher and Rafe Neathery began work on their invention after being approached by Gary Lynn, a local Houstonian living with CP who oversees a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness for the condition. According to Kutcher, a bioengineering major, their RoboCup will hopefully remove the need for additional caregiver aid and thus “grant users greater freedom.”
[Related: How much water should you drink in a day?]
RoboCup was by no means perfect from the outset, and the undergraduates reportedly went through numerous iterations before settling on their current design. In order to optimize their tool to help as many people as possible, Kutcher and Rafe spoke to numerous caregiving and research professionals about how to best improve their schematics.
“They really liked our project and confirmed its potential, but they also pointed out that in order to reach as many people as possible, we needed to incorporate more options for building the device, such as different types of sensors, valves and mechanisms for mounting the device on different wheelchair types,” Kutcher said in their October 6 profile.
The biggest challenge, according to the duo, was balancing simplification alongside functionality and durability. In the end, the pair swapped out an early camelback version for a mounted cup-and-straw design, which reportedly is both aesthetically more pleasing to users, as well as less intrusive.
In a demonstration video, Lynn is shown activating a small sensor near his left hand, which automatically pivots an adjustable straw towards his mouth. He can then drink as much as he wants, then alert the sensor again to swivel the straw back to a neutral position.
Lynn, who tested the various versions of RoboCup, endorsed the RoboCup’s ability to offer disabled users more independence in their daily lives, and believes that “getting to do this little task by themselves will enhance the confidence of the person using the device.”
Initially intended to just be a single semester project, Kutcher and Neathery now intend to continue refining their RoboCup, including investigating ways it could be adapted to people dealing with other forms of mobility issues. In the meantime, the RoboCup is entered in World Cerebral Palsy Day’s “Remarkable Designa-thon,” which promotes new products and services meant to help those with CP. And, as it just so happens, voting is open to the public from October 6-13.