The aim of the ‘MiniMat’ project is to develop a minimal animal-like soft robot and test its impact on vulnerable children in cruelty prevention and animal-assisted interventions (AAI). Intentional animal cruelty begins as young as 4 years of age, often by highly vulnerable children. MiniMat is required because of the ethical issues of using live animals in interventions with children who have harmed animals. Similarly, animal-assisted interventions can benefit vulnerable children’s mental health.
The time is right to develop MiniMat. Soft Robotics is beginning to realise its potential in medical applications including rehabilitation, surgery and manipulation of fragile objects. Because of the possibility of fashioning robots with organic body shapes and the compliant interaction of soft robots with the user and environment, a life-like appearance can be achieved more successfully than with traditional robotics designs. The project will include the production and control of prototypes for testing under realistic conditions. The suitability of the robot as an animal surrogate will depend not only on the reaction to touch and gravity but also on micro-actuation mimicking heartbeat, breathing and posture adjustment as well as on the external appearances and texture. An aim will be to produce a soft robot that reacts to children’s handling so that calm and rough handling will produce different reactions in MiniMat. The currently available robotic animals for AAI (e.g. the Paro therapeutic robot) have not been developed with animal welfare in mind and do not react adversely to rough handling. The results of the project will be used in Cruelty Prevention Studies and Animal-Assisted Intervention Studies. Both will compare two groups in with a MiniMat condition with and without robotic functions activated. During the tests, the child-robot/toy interactions will be recorded and part of the project will be the analysis of the videos. Safe interaction will be achieved by a combination of hardware compliance of the soft robot and adaptive behaviour generated by the principle of guided self-organisation.
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