Mississippi State University associate professor of computer science and engineering Cindy Bethel and her team of student researchers are melding the simple care and benefits of a plush toy with the proven success of animal therapy. Their robotic beagle puppy, known as Therabot, gathers information and data that can lead to healing for an abused child or someone suffering from post-traumatic stress.
The program is unique among universities.
“Our research is crossing the barriers of traditional therapy by providing support and assistance in the therapeutic process associated with a hurting child or adult,” says Bethel. “Our student researchers represent a variety of disciplines, from computer science to robotics to sociology to psychology and more.
“By approaching this innovative concept from such a wide view, we’re creating new inroads to psychological well-being,” she says.
Therabot looks, feels and plays similar to a real dog. The robot interacts in much the same way a real dog can with children and adults who have suffered trauma. But Therabot is much more portable, non-allergenic and easy to care for. And its technology provides feedback that leads to critical support and comfort.
The robot’s fur is made of sensory material that helps it understand its owner’s feelings and levels of stress and respond in a helpful way. It can also save important information that is difficult for a patient to log – data that clinicians can use for better diagnosis and patient recovery.
Therabot provides an added benefit as well. The robot can perform therapy activities between therapy sessions. Children and families can do exercises at home, and these sessions result in a more consistent therapy routine – leading to more learning, improved progress and better outcomes.
For contributing students, driving innovation enables them to observe a measurable application of their research.
“We are able to see how Therabot interacts and responds to a child or adult and how he or she interacts and responds back,” says Bethel. “We can witness how this interaction impacts a child’s behavior as it draws out critical actions and uncovers crucial information. It helps to understand the impact of trauma that may be experienced but often not shared.”
Students’ work takes place within MSU’s Social Therapeutic and Robotic Systems Lab, also known as STaRS. The lab capitalizes on multidisciplinary collaboration. Students contribute to the development of Therabot and also explore other robotic applications. These include integration of robotics with investigative SWAT teams, forensic applications and during emergency situations, such as communicating with someone who might be trapped in rubble following a natural or man-made disaster.