By Rick Dandes
The Danville News
DANVILLE — A Danville child who is recovering at home from a spinal operation is keeping up with her peers by using a remote-controlled robot.
The robot was invented by Double Robotics, of Seattle. It was bought by the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit and loaned to the middle school. Maddie Rarig, 11, a sixth-grader, is now able, from her bed, to be in her math and English classes in real time, interacting with her teachers, and — perhaps more importantly — her classmates.
“We call the robot Maddie, because it is very much her in the classroom,” said her math teacher, Shayna Heitzelman. “We positioned the face of the robot where she can see everything going on in front of the class. Maddie can move closer or farther away as needed. She can turn the robot around to face the class. The thing is, and this is amazing, she has this huge grin on her face, which you can see on the robot. And the kids, her friends, love it.”
The robot is essentially a Segway body with an iPad brain serving as its eyes, and Maddie is able to control the forward, backward, left or right movement of the robot from home using a smartphone or computer and up and down arrows.
When the class breaks into discussion groups, Maddie can be part of the group and interact with her fellow students, just as if she were physically in the classroom, Heitzelman said.
“I wish this technology had been available one, two years ago,” said Maddie’s mother, Kristin Rarig, on Thursday. Maddie has missed a number of school days due to her condition, and now having this robot “is helping her get better faster.”
“And it is just great for her morale. I can’t imagine how this kind of technology will develop over the next few years. The applications and potential for this are tremendous.”
That was the thinking behind CSIU executive director Kevin Singer’s idea for buying the robot in the first place.
“Last year I was at a conference in Kansas where Double Robotics had a display booth,” he recalled. “They touted the case of a student who had a farm accident in Haven, Kansas, but was in a hospital in Denver. His recovery period was long, but through the use of the robot, he was able to ‘attend’ classes at his Haven school.”
Singer believed the robot could help hospitalized or house-bound students in his districts as well.
Singer knows all about the financial pressures on school districts — after all, CSIU serves 17 districts, including the Valley districts.
“A local district, with the demands on their dollars really can’t take a lot of risks,” Singer said. “If they are cutting an academic program and then want to spend $2,100 on a robot, someone is going to be upset about that, especially if it doesn’t work.”
The CSIU on the other hand could do it collectively “because we have the purchasing business, the technology business and we’re not using taxpayer dollars directly,” Singer explained. “So we can take a risk. We decided that if we could purchase one, we could take the time to figure out how to use it and introduce it slowly to the districts we serve.”
Cost of the robot is about $2,100. The brains, the iPad, has to be purchased separately — and only iPads connect to the body of the robot. Users, however, can connect to the iPad in various other ways, so long as it is through the free app supplied by Double Robotics.
CSIU had the robot for about a month before officials started talking about it to their district superintendents.