TCD engineers rise to Joanne O’Riordan’s challenge with Robbie the Robot (video)

21 Mar 2014

Robbie the Robot

A robot prototype created to act as an assistant for Cork teenager Joanne O’Riordan, who was born without arms or legs, has passed a UN inspection by the secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Dr Hamadoun I Touré was introduced to Robbie the Robot today, Friday, at a special event in Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

O’Riordan has a rare condition called tetra amelia and, in 2011, publicly confronted the then-newly elected Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, on cuts to disability funding, prompting the Government to reverse its decision.

Hailed as a hero in Ireland, O’Riordan gained further attention with an appearance on The Late Late Show that same year and, in April 2012, addressed an ITU delegation for ‘Girls in ICT Day’ in New York. It was here that she issued a challenge to engineers to build her a robot that would be able to assist her day-to-day, particularly to pick up things she has dropped.

Challenge accepted

A team at TCD’s School of Engineering led by assistant professor Kevin Kelly took up the challenge and, in an intensive three-month development period, created Robbie.

“The research in autonomous robots and gripping technology that we were engaged in at Trinity seemed an ideal match for what Joanne was asking for. I got in touch with Joanne and her family and we began discussing how we could help,” said Kelly.

Robbie’s head is made from 3D-printed plastic and his ‘face’ is an enclosed 7-inch LCD. The team designed an anthropomorphic look for Robbie to make it easier for O’Riordan and others to engage with him. His face can express happiness, sadness and surprise, and his continuous blinking is a signal that everything’s functioning fine.

The robot’s body is built from aluminium, carbon fibre and plastic, housing rechargeable lithium-polymer batteries, three computers, high-torque motors and gearboxes, air compressors and regulators, sensors and communications hardware. The team has even created an iPad control interface for O’Riordan, which includes voice control. Robbie’s head is eye level with O’Riordan as she is positioned in her wheelchair, but he can also extend to a standing position.


To enable Robbie to pick up fallen objects, the TCD team adapted an idea from researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A balloon filled with coffee granules is inflated with air so it can conform to any shape, be it a smartphone or a pencil. When the air is sucked out, the granules lock the ‘hand’ around the object and, when the arm reaches an appropriate position, it is released.

Moving on from the prototype

Robbie is still just a prototype and more work needs to be done before the robot can be used outside the test environment, but the TCD engineering team hopes to gain the financial support to follow this project through to completion.

“The prototype is just the first step on the journey, but we’ve designed it in a manner that will allow us to develop and extend the capability in any future generations of Robbie,” said Kelly.

“To get as far as we’ve done in this time is a tribute to the energy and ability of the team. It has been immensely hard work but sometimes you just have to do the right thing, and ultimately the reward is the satisfaction of seeing something like we have today,” he added.

Robbie’s development has been supported by a donation of €50,000 from the ITU. “Joanne’s courage and energy are formidable – and her enthusiasm for the power of information and communication technologies to help her overcome her challenges and engage with the world around her is truly inspiring,” said Touré.

“ITU undertakes a lot of work in the areas of empowering young girls and promoting ICTs for accessibility – but it took Joanne to show us all the vital importance of these efforts. ITU is very proud indeed to have been a part of this pioneering project.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.