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Robot giving a helping hand in global study

A robot arm modelled on an elephant's trunk is helping a Sheffield student in a global project to help people with restricted mobility to carry out everyday tasks, such as helping them to feed themselves. Sheffield Hallam University PhD student Chinwe (Lucy) Ozoegwu will use the £13,000 Robotino XT arm to complete her doctorate in industrial automation and robotics.

The robot arm's capability for solving tasks such as helping people with limited mobility to feed themselves will be one of the first pieces of work Lucy will undertake. The project will also see youngsters from the new University Technical College (UTC) in Sheffield carrying out roles as research assistants under Lucy's supervision, where they will use the arm as part of their Advanced Engineering and Manufacturing courses. Lucy, 30 and originally from Enugu State, Nigeria, is the only student in the UK to work on the global project devised by German manufacturers Festo, working alongside students from the USA and Brazil. 

She said: 'We plan to investigate and develop the capability of the Robotino XT as an autonomous self-adapting machine, where the robot will learn from its own experience, without being restricted to pre-conceived routines. 

'It should also be able to adapt the learning to solving engineering problems. The initial problem we aim to solve is that of assistive feeding for people with limited movements in their arms and cannot feed independently.

'Once this has been effectively realised, it can then be easily transferable to other tasks due to the robot's autonomous and self-adapting behaviour.' Andrew Cropley, chair of the UTC Sheffield Academy Trust, said: 'This is a fantastic collaboration bringing together Sheffield Hallam and the new UTC in a project led by a multinational business which has global possibilities. 

'Only a handful of institutions have the opportunity to work on this robotic arm and it will be a fantastic addition to the UTC's offer for 14 to 19-year-olds. 

'Lucy will lead the research project while UTC students will act as research assistants - all of them exploring new possibilities which will help them develop their future careers.'

The Robotino XT can manoeuvre through 12 degrees in cramped spaces while the flexibility of its gripper arm allows direct human-machine contact. It opens up new forms of interaction between the human operator and technology. The UTC Sheffield, which opens on Shoreham Street this September, will offer young people aged 14 to 19 academic qualifications and specialist skills for the advanced engineering, and the creative and digital industries sectors. Lucy is studying for her PhD in Sheffield Hallam's Centre for Automation and Robotics Research, headed by Professor Jacques Penders.

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