With a 6-month-old at the controls, researchers at the University of Delaware are encouraging underage driving.
Their ultimate goal is to help immobile, disabled children move and explore.
The researchers are using robotics in an odd contraption that's sort of a cross between a bumper car and a robot. In a recent test, Aniya Harris, a normally developing 6-month-old, scooted across the floor in delight by pushing a joystick on the little vehicle. She's too young to steer it.
"I think she thinks, 'Joystick means go.' I'll take that right now," said Cole Galloway, a physical therapy professor who heads the infant motor behavior lab.
He and the other researchers believe the robot, dubbed UD1, holds the promise of opening up new horizons for disabled infants, especially those with orthopedic problems or muscular dystrophy. Wheeled robots could enable them to move and explore the world around them, which studies suggest is critical to their development.
Researchers in the United Kingdom have been working for years on powered mobility for toddlers. However, Galloway said, conventional wisdom has held that because of safety issues, children aren't considered ready for that until age 4 or 5; the earliest age doctors might recommend powered mobility is age 3.
That means too many children are at risk of losing out on the important early link between mobility and their overall development, he said.
"As soon as you're reaching, as soon as you're walking, your cognition explodes," Galloway explained.
Sunil Agrawal, a professor of mechanical engineering at the university, has been working for years on wheeled robots with infrared and sonar sensors that can avoid obstacles. A prototype based on those models is being used in studies involving about a dozen typically developing infants and a smaller number who have special needs.
Using a computer and wireless technology, researchers can measure the frequency and duration of joystick use by a child; the location, speed, and distance traveled by the vehicle; and the amount of time spent "driving."
During a recent visit, Aniya sat in UD1's blue plastic seat and tugged on the joystick as her aunt, Daina Montgomery, beckoned from a few feet away with a toy. The little girl whirred across the floor to her aunt.
Galloway and Agrawal said their research is still early, and parents shouldn't expect to see robotic vehicles on the market anytime soon. They hope to get funding to continue their research and develop a second-generation robot.
A few similar products are already commercially available in England, including the "Wizzybug." It was developed by researchers at the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering for disabled 2- to 5-year-olds. While it doesn't have some of the robotic features of UD1, the Wizzybug has both a programmable joystick and parental control.
Nina Evans, a research occupational therapist at the institute, said children using the Wizzybug are able to sit in a safe and functional position while learning about movement.
Ruth Everard of Dragonmobility Ltd. in Cambridge, England, another producer of powered vehicles, said the research at the University of Delaware should add to the existing body of knowledge about mobility and the developmental needs of children.
"I think it's really important that people combine their knowledge and look at what's been done before," she said.
Everard, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, was 21 months old when her father designed a powered chair for her, spawning a company that has provided mobility for children as young as 11 months old.
"I find it tiring that I'm still being told it's cutting edge, and I'm 28," she said.