Drone as ‘AI therapist’ for children with autism

For a large number children with autism, there is no suitable or affordable treatment. This group is verbally underdeveloped, which means that documented interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy or speech therapy be unsuitable. dance movement therapy (DMT), a treatment that focuses on movement and dance, is suitable. DMT has been shown to improve these children’s well-being, attention, flexibility, involvement and communication skills. But because the treatment only works if it is carefully adapted to the child, a therapist can only treat one person at a time.

Therefore, humanoid robots are often used as an alternative, but they are very expensive. They often cost more than 7,000 euros. And then they still have to be programmed’, says Anahita Jamshidnejad, assistant professor at TU Delft. Why don’t we choose drones?, she thought.

Drones best suited

Children with autism often find robots very interesting, experiments show. Robots are more predictable than humans and their forms of communication are less intense, so the children experience less fear. Most projects focusing on DMT use a humanoid robot, but it has limited movement capabilities. Jamshidnejad therefore sees drones as the most suitable ‘robots’ for DMT. ‘A drone is a robot, but one that comes out of the ground. This extra dimension means that the device can make many more different movements. A drone is much cheaper than a robot, easier to program and easy to control by carers or family.’

Making repetitive movements can give children peace of mind

Jamshidnejad had just started as an assistant professor at TU Delft in 2019. She planned to establish her own line of research focusing on the interaction between humans and robots. Then the idea for the drones was born. ‘My desire was to do something that would help people. I am very interested in psychology and have heard about autism and DMT.’

She approached the psychology department at Erasmus University Rotterdam. The reactions were enthusiastic, but also hesitant: ‘There was little experience with technology.’ Together with Ruth Van der Hallen, assistant professor in clinical psychology, she submitted an application through the funding instrument Open Mind. ‘Many calls focus on either psychology or technical sciences. Open Mind appreciates interdisciplinarity and was therefore the best fit.’ Their first application for this idea was immediately successful.

Relieve the therapist’s work

The drone they want to develop works autonomously as much as possible. That way, the therapist has less work, she explains. The device must therefore be able to interpret children’s reactions and adapt the program accordingly: ‘It must be an AI therapist so that the drone can also be used at home. And the therapist must be able to go for ten minutes and guide several people at the same time in their sessions. A therapist must therefore be able to trust the device. All responsibility lies with the drone. It is different from ordinary human-robot interaction.’

Explain in the video below that they made for their application to Open Mind Jamshidnejad and Van der Hallen of their research.

An important question was how the algorithm in the drone can see what is going on in the child. The interdisciplinary collaboration with the psychologists proved its value. ‘We wondered how we could read emotions from the child’s face. But with this group of kids, you don’t get that information that way. It is only possible with children who have a milder form of autism.’ The solution is that the drone looks at the extent to which the children imitate the drone’s movements and how precisely they do it. The researchers use this information to determine whether the child is showing interest.

Answer in real time

A technical challenge was the drone’s response time. This person must respond immediately to the children to ensure that the interaction goes smoothly. ‘Normally, when interacting with a robot, people understand that they need to be patient, but this group will not have the patience it needs to be real time.’ This requires fast calculations, which are difficult to realize on a drone without it becoming very slow. Speed ​​can still be guaranteed through a WiFi connection with a good laptop.

Portrait photo of Anahita Jamshidnejad

Open Mind has opened doors for me

During a session, the drone plays songs to attract attention. When the child hits something, the drone makes simple dance movements that the child can imitate. The camera records the child’s reactions and with the help of AI, the drone adapts movements accordingly. “Making repetitive movements can give children peace of mind,” says Jamshidnejad.

Sustainable cooperation

The one-year project led to a publication and a master’s thesis. It also resulted in a successful collaboration with Erasmus University’s psychology department. “We introduced technology as a theme for them.” The project stimulated Jamshidnejad to new research proposals. In 2020, she was awarded a Veni grant for research into autonomous drones that assist firefighters in emergency operations. Within the Open Competition, she is doing a project that investigates the interaction between humanoid robots and people with dementia.

Open Mind had a big impact

‘Open Mind was my first prize. It wasn’t the biggest, but the impact was big. Open Mind has opened doors for me’, says Jamshidnejad, looking back. ‘It enabled me to establish my own line of research. I got funding, was able to put together a team, it gave me visibility in the field where I wanted to work. This was my breakthrough.’

The researchers are investigating new applications for larger calls directed at drones. Jamshidnejad points to the possible impact of their idea: ‘If we can make drones at an affordable price, 24-hour supervision for these children will become possible. And if the drones manage to adapt to the children, the effectiveness of the treatment will increase.’
About 1 percent of children are diagnosed with autism. Many do not get the help they need: ‘The non-verbal group needs guidance the most, but gets it the least. This solution is especially for them.’

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