“Ask a man in solitary confinement if he wants just an hour of freedom a day. I tell you, he will live for it. Robots are my freedom.”– Henry Evans (Forbes, Dec 13, 2012)
While drones are often thought of as tools of war – or of fast package delivery, if you’re Amazon – a team of researchers at the Robots for Humanity project is working to put them to a much higher purpose: helping the disabled regain function. One very important member of their team is Henry Evans, who tests out the new technology and advises the researchers about the needs of the disabled. The reasons that Henry came to be working on this project, however, are very personal.
Up until the age of 40, Evans says he was living his version of the American dream. He grew up in what he describes as a typical American town near St. Louis, with a lawyer father, a homemaker mother and six siblings. Later, after he left home, he attended Notre Dame University, receiving degrees in accounting and German, and even spent a year studying abroad in Austria. He then completed his education by earning an MBA at Stanford University. Evans’ personal life was blissful as well. He married his high school sweetheart, Jane; and, together, they raised four beautiful children. As Evans worked his way up in his career, becoming the Chief Financial Officer in a Silicon Valley corporation, it seemed that nothing could mar his happiness. And, in December of 2001, the happy couple bought their first home: a fixer-upper in Los Altos Hills, CA.
They were excitedly looking forward to doing renovations on their home when, eight months later, tragedy struck. On August 29, 2002, Evans suffered from an attack called a brain stem stroke. The stroke occurred when a blood clot formed due to a birth defect, blocking off the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain stem. This caused the brain stem, which controls all voluntary movements, to die. The brain itself, however, was spared. The net result was that Evans was left suddenly mute and unable to move. Yet, his brain was still as sharp as ever.
Evans says that for several years he struggled to cope with his rapid descent into disability. A person’s memory is filled with all of the memories of life prior to the event, he says, so the poignancy of the loss remains with a person constantly. He adds that eventually, as a person has new experiences, those memories will fade and a new sense of “normal” will develop; but, this takes time. In his case, he says he cried daily for about the first three years, both due to his grief over his loss and due to the effects of his stroke, which gave him little control over his emotions. In all, he says, it took him about five years to really start to look forward again. He credits the love and support of his wife with helping him through this difficult time.
One bit of advice that Evans offers to others who are going through similar experiences is that they should work to get their medications under control as quickly as possible. In his case, he uses baclofen to control painful muscle spasms as well as the antidepressant fluoxetine to help with his emotional lability.
Once he reached the point where he felt that life could be worth living again, Evans, who had always had a curious mind and keen intellect, became fascinated with the idea of using technology to help people with disabilities like his own.
One of the first technological innovations that Evans was able to use to his advantage was a commercially-available head tracking device manufactured by Madentech. After much physical therapy, he was able to create small movements of his head; so, by attaching this device to his computer, he was able to use these tiny head movements in order to direct the cursor around the screen. Using only this adaptation, Evans is now able to use a regular computer to surf the Internet and write emails. He also jokes that he is able to routinely “destroy” his friends in online word games. Through this simple device, he says, he is able to remain mentally active and engaged with the world, which is so very important to people with disabilities who may feel quite isolated from those around them, especially if they are bedridden or not able to leave their homes on a regular basis.
Evans’ world really began to open up, however. when he happened to run across a CNN segment about Charlie Kemp’s work at the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech. Kemp was demonstrating the capabilities of the PR2 robot, which Evans immediately knew could have some exciting applications in helping those with disabilities. He quickly shot off an email to Kemp and his colleague, Steve Cousins, at the Willow Garage, a robotics research laboratory, and soon they formed a partnership called Robots for Humanity.
For two years, Evans worked with Robots for Humanity, looking for ways that he could use the PR2 robot as a “body surrogate.” By using the robot, Evans says that he was able to perform many of the mundane tasks of living that we all take for granted for the first time in 10 years. For example, he was able to hand out Halloween candy, open the refrigerator, help his wife around the house and even shave himself. Rather humorously, he also notes that the technology allowed him to shave his friend Charlie Kemp – all the way across the country in his Atlanta lab.
Steve Cousins, President and CEO of Willow Garage, says that this technology can help the disabled in many ways, great and small. For example, a small irritation, like an itch, can become a major annoyance for someone with limited mobility. One of the many issues that Henry Evans faces as a quadriplegic is that he gets an itch that he can’t scratch about two to three times a hour. With the PR2 robot, however, this has changed. By using the robot, Evans is able to use it as a tool to scratch just where he needs it, giving him relief from something that has vexed him for years.
Evans notes with his typically wicked sense of humor, that we are all disabled in some form or another. For example, if you want to go 60 mph, he says, you will need an assistive device called a car. All joking aside, however, he says that he doesn’t see his use of tools to help him achieve his goals as being any different.
Working with robots, however, isn’t all the team has been doing. A new dimension was added to their work when Chad Jenkins of Willow Garage showed Evans how easily an off-the-shelf aerial drone can be bought and flown. Evans immediately saw the possibilities for helping the disabled with this new technology and began learning how to use it.
By using a head tracking device to operate the controls of the drone via his computer, Evans has been able to navigate it around his home with a video camera attached, allowing him to see things that would not normally be accessible to him. For the first time since his attack, he was able to use the camera-equipped drone to fly around the grounds of his home, inspecting first the grapes growing in his garden and then the solar panels on his roof.
Along the way, Evans has also been able to find surrogates for the joy of physical exercise, occasionally engaging in rousing robot soccer matches with his colleagues at Willow Garage.
While Evans says it’s an overstatement to describe his use of these tools as being like living in a virtual reality, they do greatly enrich his life. He adds that if anyone is interested in learning more about the off-the-shelf technology and software that he uses, they are welcome to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He says he can also help those who are bedridden with setting up web-based remote-control robot soccer games and drone tours. Information about the drone and head tracking device, as well as the free software that Evans uses, is also available at the bottom of this article.
Quite astoundingly, Evans recently gave a TED presentation, in which he spoke about all of his experiences, all the way from his bed in his California home, complete with a remote demonstration of his drone-maneuvering skills. For this presentation, he used a telepresence robot with a screen on the front showing his live image as he reacted to the audience’s laughter at the many jokes that he interspersed throughout his talk.
At the conclusion of his presentation, his colleague Chad Jenkins discussed the goals of the research team, stating that their hope is to “democratize robotics” by providing “affordable, off-the-sheff robot platforms,” along with open source robotics software, in order to help those like Henry Evans obtain a fuller and more active life.
When Evans concluded his remarks with a joyful and triumphant smile, it was clear just how much this technology has already expanded his life, which he noted quite profoundly would probably have ended with his attack if he had lived 100 years earlier.
His very inspiring TED talk can be viewed in its entirely below.
By Nancy Schimelpfening
Personal Interview With Henry Evans and Steve Cousins
TrackerPro by Madentech