How robots have widened the world of one man unable to move

Henry Evans relies on a telepresence robot and a remote-controlled quadrotor helicopter with an onboard camera to take him places he can't go.

Henry Evans hasn’t been able to dress himself, move his legs, or speak aloud in more than a decade. 

In the past year, however, he has charmed audience members at TEDxMidAtlantic, an idea-sharing conference in Washington; toured the National Museum of Australia; and played soccer with his buddies on the East Coast – all from his bed in Los Altos, Calif., thanks to robotics.

In 2002, Mr. Evans says, he had a stroke, which rendered him mute and paralyzed. In the years since, he has gained some head movement and the ability to control one finger on his left hand, but has been largely confined to his bed.

In the past few years, however, Evans has been able to vastly expand his world with the help of some cutting-edge robots.

A remote-controlled quadrotor helicopter with an onboard camera gives him a bird’s-eye view of his rooftop solar panels and the small vineyard he planted before the stroke. He steers the quadrotor with his head movements while watching the camera’s video feed on a computer screen.

For more-distant journeys, such as touring museums or visiting his robotics research buddies at Brown University in Providence, R.I., he dials into “the BEAM” – a telepresence robot designed for virtual business meetings that resembles a television on stilts. With a subtle tilt of his head, Evans can navigate the BEAM through hallways, maneuver around corners, and even play robot soccer, all from thousands of miles away.

Evans sees robotics as the key to unlocking the prison in which many quadriplegics find themselves trapped. He founded Robots for Humanity to gather and disseminate information about ways in which robots can improve the lives of people with disabilities. “It’s up to all of us to decide how we want robotics to be used – for good or for evil, for replacing people or for making people better,” he says in a video on the Robots for Humanity website. 

[Editor's note:  A previous version of this story spelled Henry Evan's name incorrectly in the subheading.

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