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A wheelchair that helps you eat with a robotic arm

Elderly sit around tables in their wheelchairs.
Photo: Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

A robot built at the University of Washington can spear a carrot or a tomato, and gingerly lift it up for a person to eat without using their hands.

The big picture: About 1 million American adults need help eating, according to census data. But there's more to feeding somebody than you might think. In experiments, the UW researchers gathered data as volunteers picked up various foods with a fork and fake-fed them to a mannequin.

  • Without thinking, people make all sorts of small adjustments based on a food's size, shape and texture. Most stab a soft banana at an angle, for example, so it doesn't fall off, and skewer a hard carrot by wiggling the fork in.
  • The researchers taught their robot to identify several fruits and vegetables on a plate, and then pick the best place to pick one up: strawberries in the middle; longer carrots at an end.
  • Then, the arm lifts up the food and holds it near the person's mouth for them to bite it off.

Watch more videos of the robot here.