DETROIT — When Blair Gallagher became a quadriplegic after a diving accident 13 years ago, there seemed little chance that he would ever again be able to handle even the most menial tasks on the job.
His was a fine mind trapped in a shattered body that would no longer listen to his commands.
But the future may hold new hope for the Pittsburgh sociology teacher and other severely disabled workers around the country. Personal robots that will perform simple office functions at custom-designed workstations for the handicapped are about to go on the market.
"This is light years ahead of anything else I've seen," says Gallagher, 34, who has used a new system for the handicapped being developed by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"With a system like this available to the disabled, it is going to allow them to be contributing members of society. Not to take from society, but to give, and that's all people in a wheelchair want to do."
Now, university researchers and robotics industry officials believe that their new robotic technology could provide unprecedented independence for the severely disabled, allowing them to handle office jobs in the booming service sector that they have been shut out of in the past.
It could also help create a huge new market for robots, which have so far found few useful applications outside the factory.
"The industrial robot industry, in 27 years, has put about 25,000 machines in place," observes Walter Weisel, president of Prab Robots, a Kalamazoo, Mich., robotics manufacturer.
"But if we could help just half of the quadriplegics (those without the full use of their arms and legs) in this country, we would help 300,000 people become productive," Weisel adds.
At a robotics industry trade show here Tuesday, Prab Robots announced that it will begin selling the first commercially available robots for the handicapped this week.
Prab, using technology developed first by Boeing, plans to ship 40 systems to vocational training centers over the next six months, and later expects to begin mass production so that the systems will be available to individuals by next year.
The development of robots for the handicapped represents a breakthrough for the robotics industry, because it is one of the first commercial applications for true robots in the fast-growing health-care field. Specialists believe that health care could soon become one of the new industry's biggest markets.
Indeed, after an initial sense of euphoria in the early 1980s in heavy industry over the potential for robots on the assembly line, the nagging inability of many robots to be integrated into factories has led to a cutback in industrial robot orders. As a result, many robotics industry executives are turning to service fields.
"I've long believed that the future of robots is in helping people, not in the big manufacturing robots that we've seen so far," Weisel says.
Essentially, the new Prab robot system and more advanced equipment under development at Carnegie-Mellon combine robotic arms, personal computers and telephone gear into automated workstations that can be controlled by a person's voice.
On voice commands from a headset, the systems can make phone calls, send computer messages, and insert floppy discs into a computer. The computer is equipped to take voice-activated directions that permit work on a variety of documents, financial spreadsheets and engineering studies.
The robotic arm also can take books from shelves, pick up mail from an in box to show the worker and cut and staple papers. The arm can turn on a radio or even put a cassette tape into a player and turn on the machine.
In order for the robot to be effective, all office functions must be within reach of the arm. For instance, mail must be left in an adjacent in-out tray. Still, the systems are compact, and are designed to be used in a normal office of about 10 feet by 10 feet.
The robotic systems have limitations; the Prab system's voice command system, for instance, is too slow to handle lengthy writing or word processing.
The Prab robot is basically two years behind the technology now under development at Carnegie-Mellon, according to K. G. Engelhardt, director of the university's health and human services robotics laboratory. Engelhardt, previously a robotics specialist at Stanford University, helped develop for Boeing the technology now used by Prab.
Still, the handicapped people who have used such workstations, especially the more sophisticated equipment at Carnegie-Mellon, say the systems give them new hope after years of frustration. "I think the most important point to emphasize is that the robotic workstation is going to allow a tremendous amount of independence for the disabled," Gallagher says.
The enormous costs of such systems, however, could be a major roadblock to their wide use. Prab president Weisel says the first systems sold by Prab will cost $50,000 apiece. Less sophisticated models would go for $30,000.
Weisel says several major insurance companies, which he wouldn't identify, are interested in helping to finance the systems in some way: "The way they see it, it costs at least $750,000, not including lost income, to care for a quadriplegic over a lifetime, so this system looks cheap by comparison."