1999 Conference Proceedings

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Mike Topping BA Cert Ed
Jane Smith BA Hons

1. Summary

The Handy 1 was developed in 1987 by Mike Topping to assist an 11 year old boy with cerebral palsy to eat unaided. The system is the most successful low-cost, commercially available robotic system in the world todate capable of assisting the most severely disabled with several everyday functions.


Throughout the European Community today, demand for service robots such as Handy 1, is increasing, due to changing age structures. Currently about 10-14% of the population consists of people with special needs, who are being served by ever fewer able-bodied people.

The early version of the Handy 1 system consisted of a Cyber 310 robotic arm with five degrees of freedom plus a gripper. A BBC micro computer was used to programme the movements for the system and a Concept Keyboard was utilised as the man machine interface.

The first prototype was completed within three months and placed for trials in the boys home. The system worked successfully and was liked by the user, however some design weaknesses were noted:

In 1989 sufficient funding was secured to develop a Mk2 Handy 1 which would address the problems inherent in the design of the initial prototype. In order to enable the Mk2 Handy 1 to become more portable it was decided to develop a more integrated design approach and dispense with the necessity of having several separate pieces of technology joined together in an ungainly manner.

The BBC micro was replaced with a more powerful PC386 motherboard which was housed within the base unit of the Handy 1. The important issue of selecting a user interface capable of meeting the needs of a wide variety of disability groups was solved through the implementation of a single switch input used in conjunction with a linear scanning control system. This combination has proved successful over the past 10 years, enabling many different disability groups to successfully operate the Handy 1.

User Control Characteristics of the Mk2 Handy 1

A scanning system of lights designed into the tray section of Handy 1 allows the user to select food from any part of the dish. Briefly, once the system is powered up and food has been arranged in the walled columns of the food dish, a series of seven lights begin to scan from left to right behind the food dish. The user then simply waits for the light to scan behind the column of food that he/she wants to eat, and then presses the single switch which sets the Handy 1 in motion. The robot then proceeds onto the selected section of the dish and scoops up a spoonful of the chosen food and presents it at the users mouth position. The user may then remove the food at his/her own speed, and by pressing the single switch again, the process can be repeated until the dish is empty. The onboard computer keeps track of where food has been selected from the dish and automatically controls the scanning system to bypass empty areas. Using an eighth light which is designed into the tray, users are able to access a drink at any point during their meal.

Development of modular interchangeable tray sections for eating, washing, shaving, teeth cleaning and cosmetic application. In 1995 the RAIL (Robotic Aid to Independent Living) project began, funded by the European Commission BIOMED II Programme. The aim of the project was to develop three detachable slide-on tray sections (eating/drinking, washing/shaving/teeth cleaning, and cosmetic application) for the Handy 1 system which could be supplied according to the users requirements.

To cater for the added sophistication of the design, a new controller for the Handy 1 was produced based upon PC104 technology. In order to ensure that the design could be easily upgradeable for future developments a unique input/output board was designed to slot into the PC 104 controller. The input/output boards design incorporates capabilities for voice recognition, speech synthesis, inputs for sensors, joystick control and stepper motor drivers.

The modular interchangeable tray sections rest upon runners attached to the Handy 1 and connect electrically via a robust sixteen pin socket built integrally into the Handy 1 base unit. Thus, it is now possible for the system to recognise the presence or absence of up to fifteen different trays. Feedback via potentiometers built the joints of the Handy 1 is incorporated to enable automatic referencing on start-up, also a simple error checking routine is built in to the solution. The well proven eating and drinking single switch/scanning light control principle is retained on all three tray sections. Features of the eating and drinking tray

The eating and drinking tray is based upon the design of the original Handy 1, however additional features include automatic referencing on power up, positional feedback, error correction during operation and helpful speech prompts for users and carerswhich will enhance the user friendliness of the system and break down language barriers. A more efficient eating dish containing seven integral wall sections was developed to replace the old 'Pyrex' dish of the Handy 1 significantly improving the scooping performance of the spoon.

Features of the washing/shaving/teeth cleaning tray

The system enables users to pick up a sponge, move it into a bowl of water, squeeze out excess liquid, apply soap to a sponge and bring it to the face position. After the user has washed their face, water rinse and warm air dry options are available to complete the task. Also integrally fitted onto the tray section is an electric shaver and toothbrush and a drinking cup to rinse out the mouth. All these items can be picked up and used in any order and the shaver and toothbrush can be simply controlled and positioned at various parts of the face or mouth, allowing shaving or dental hygiene to be performed in an efficient manner.

Features of the cosmetic application tray

Ladies are able to choose from a range of different cosmetics including blusher, foundation, eye shadows and lipsticks. Briefly the system works as follows: When the Handy 1 is powered up a series of lights adjacent to each of the cosmetic types begin to scan, one after another, the concept being that when the light is lit adjacent to the cosmetic that is required, the user simply activates the single switch. At this point the Handy 1 selects the correct brush or applicator and applies the correct amount of blusher, foundation, lipstick, eye shadow etc. Once the make-up has been applied to the applicator it is positioned at the appropriate face position where the user is able to apply the make-up.


The necessity for a system such as Handy 1 is increasing daily, the changing age structure in Europe means that a greater number of people with special needs are being cared for by ever fewer able bodied people. The simplicity and multi-functionality of Handy 1 has heightened its appeal to all disability groups and also their carers. The system provides people with special needs a greater autonomy and independence thereby increasing self confidence, boosting morale and enabling them to enhance their chances of integration into a 'normal' environment.


[1] Weir, RFff, Childress, D.S. (1996) Encyclopaedia of Applied Physics, Vol. 15

[2] Topping M J (1995) The Development of Handy 1 a Robotic Aid to Independence for the Severely Disabled. Proceedings of the IEE Colloquium "Mechatronic Aids for the Disabled" University of Dundee. 17 May 1995. pp2/1-2/6. Digest No: 1995/107.

[3] Topping M J (1996) 'Handy 1" A Robotic Aid to Independence for the Severely Disabled. Published in Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 19 June 1996.

[4] Smith J, Topping M J, (1997) Study to Determine the main Factors Leading to the overall success of the Handy 1 Robotic System. ICORR'97 International Conference on Rehabilitation Robotics, Bath University, pp147-150.

[5] Topping M J, Smith J, Makin J (1996) A Study to Compare the Food Scooping Performance of the 'Handy 1' Robotic Aid to Eating, using Two Different Dish Designs Proceedings of the IMACS International Conference on Computational Engineering in Systems Applications Lille, 9-12/07/96.

[6] H. Heck, Ch. Buhler, P. Hedenborn, G. Bolmsjo. M. Topping, (1997) "User requirements analysis and technical development of a robotic aid to independent living (RAIL). 4th European Conference on Engineering and Medicine Bridging Eat and West - Warsaw (Poland) 25-27 May 1997.

[7] M Topping H Heck, G Bolmsjo D Weightman (1998) The Development of RAIL (Robotic Aid to Independent Living) 3rd TIDE Congress, 23-25 June 1998, , Helsinki, Finland.

[8] M Topping (1998) Development of RAIL (Robotic Aid to Independent Living) IX World Congress of The International Society For Prosthetics and Orthotics.June 2-July 3, 1998, Amsterdam

[9] Topping M J, Helmut H, Bolmsjo G, (1997) An overview of the BIOMED 2 RAIL (Robotic Aid to Independent Living) project. ICORR'97,14-15 April 1997, Bath University, UK. pp 23 - 26.

[10] Topping M J (1996) 'A Robotic Makeover' Brushwork Magazine

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