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Alfred – Access Robotics. #TheRealEPICStory

Kirsty Marrs |29, April, 2022

We caught up with Alfred, to find out all about what Access Robotics is working on!

Access Robotics is a name in assistive robotics that you may not have heard yet. They are a new start-up business of two engineers with the aim of developing robotic systems. Alfred and Askar have a keen interest in 3D printing and robotics and are currently in the feasibility process with EPIC and ERDF funding, to evaluate the viability of their proposed project, allowing them to adjust the design based on feedback from end users and testing.

The project is a wheelchair-mounted robotic arm (WMRA) which has been designed to handle simple pick-and-place tasks and has the chance to improve the quality of life for wheelchair users with upper-limb mobility issues. This could reduce the amount of assistance from a caregiver to perform activities of such as opening doors, holding beverages, retrieving dropped items, and other such tasks that are fundamental to daily life or interacting with environments that are not classically friendly to their restrictions.

This could also save the health sector money and take the strain from family carers as an affordable WMRA can potentially enable users to carry out 40% more daily tasks themselves and require 30% less assistance from a caregiver; thereby enabling the carer to focus on the emotional and physical wellbeing of the person they are caring for.

For initial tests, a simple joy-stick interface—similar to those used with electric wheel-chairs— will be used to control the arm. Other haptic interfaces can be explored at a later stage in order to make the system useable by those who are unable to operate a joy-stick.

One of the key motivations for Access Robotics is cost, relying on others for care, and buying equipment can be unachievable for many, especially in the case of accidents and unforeseen circumstances wherein there isn’t much time to adapt to a sudden degradation in mobility. According to the office of national statistics, one-in-five people in the UK reported a disability, and the top three most common impairments reported were issues related to mobility, fatigue, and dexterity.

An affordable, reliable, and useful robotic arm has the potential to massively improve the quality of life for individuals with upper-body mobility issues such as advanced muscular or sever upper extremity disabilities, by boosting their autonomy, and in turn their accessibility to the outside world. The arm is designed mainly with tasks in the home in mind but it could be adapted for use in public spaces to make them more inclusive, perhaps the supermarket or in libraries.

There is also the chance to future the proposed product to other applications such as search-and-rescue, automated agriculture, hazardous-material handling, and teleoperation – just a few tweaks to the original design could create a very commercially viable product, with limitless uses.

At present, wheelchair mounted robotic arms available on the market are an expensive scarcity, with a minimum cost of $15,000 for one! These rigid robots are ideal for industrial automation as they offer high degrees of precision that are ideal for assembly lines, but they are not safe to operate around the home, without the implementing costly active control systems. The proposed WMRA will be a system that incorporates passively-compliant elements that will make the arm more difficult to damage and safer to use around people; in layman’s terms it’s the difference between banging your extended finger on a table, versus a slightly bent one, the impact is much softer.

The aim is to have the overall cost below £2,500 in order to keep the arm affordable to most. 3D printing is very cost-effective for rapid-prototyping, but larger scale-production would see further cost-reduction benefits if manufacturing techniques, such as plastic-moulding, are used once a final design is determined.

Access Robotics – or Alfred and Askar as they were when they first engaged with EPIC Start, got involved with the ERDF project because they found it convenient and accessible, seeing it as an opportunity to commercialise the ideas they were already keen to explore. Being involved with EPIC presented opportunities to collaborate with, and network, as well as establish connections with the people who will eventually use the finished product. This important connection means that the components can be tested and adjusted during creation so that they are suitable for the end use; a key stage in product design, but essential in eHealth.

The duo state that the most difficult thing so far was not the robotic itself, their main challenge with setting up a business was getting to grips with the bureaucracy, setting up a bank account, learning all about tax issues with the help of the CIOS Growth Hub and how to conform to ERDF regulations. Access Robotics have been supported by EPICs Gabriel Aguiar with sector specific advice on robotics and the start-up process, and they state that having the support of their fellow students and alumni of the University of Plymouth certainly helped.

If the feasibility study indicates that the initial product is viable, and there is enough interest in buying and using the arm they will focus on developing new iterations of product to fine tune it ready for market.
If the product is a failure, which we all doubt it will be, Alfred confidently says ‘We will learn from our mistakes and move on with the next project.’ This bounce back attitude really shows that the co-founders and Access Robotics itself is a robotics company to keep an eye on in the future.